Car accident law refers to the legal rules that determine who is responsible for the personal and property damage resulting from a traffic collision. This area of the law consists of the principles of negligence, as applied to this particular category of personal injury cases. Like other cases in which negligence law applies, car accident litigation is governed almost entirely by state law.
While nuances exist, car accident victims in every state must prove the same basic four elements in order to recover compensation. These elements are: duty, breach, causation, and harm. With respect to duty, drivers have a legal obligation to obey the rules of the road and to operate their vehicles in a reasonable manner. This means driving a safe speed, maintaining control, exercising awareness, observing traffic signals, using blinkers and headlights, etc.
The existence of a duty is typically accepted without much argument. By contrast, the plaintiff will usually be required to offer evidence that the defendant breached that duty. Breach can be shown by direct evidence, such as eyewitness testimony, traffic surveillance video, or an admission of fault. Or, the plaintiff may need to resort to circumstantial evidence, such as skid marks, paint smudges, or blood alcohol readings.
Just because the defendant had a duty to operate his or her vehicle in a certain manner, and it is shown that the defendant breached that duty, the court will not assume those circumstances caused the plaintiff’s injuries. Rather, the plaintiff must prove the element of causation. In car accident cases, this can be done through medical testimony demonstrating the injuries are consistent with the nature of the crash, and that they did not exist beforehand.
Finally, the plaintiff must prove harm. No matter how egregious the other driver’s conduct was behind the wheel, the plaintiff cannot bring a negligence lawsuit unless the conduct produced damage to the plaintiff’s person or vehicle. “Near miss” cases will not qualify. Once harm is shown, the plaintiff may be entitled to compensation for medical expenses, pain and grief, lost wages, and more.
Steps to Take Following an Accident
The first thing to do after a car accident is to remain silent about who is to blame for the incident. As simple as this may seem, admitting fault is by far the most common mistake potential litigants make in the moments following a crash. Ordinarily, the rules of evidence do not allow out-of-court statements (aka “hearsay”). But there is an exception for admissions. Even a simple apology can potentially be used against you.
Conversely, it is important to make notes of any statements made by the other driver. A smart phone, tablet, or other electronic device can be great for recording voice memos in the chaos of an accident scene. By whatever means are available, gather as much detail about the accident as possible. To begin with, take down the other driver’s name and address, license number, and insurance information.
Other evidence to preserve includes witness contact information, descriptions of the road, traffic, and weather conditions, and photographs of the vehicles. If your cell phone or camera has the ability to record video, use it. Make a video of the accident scene up close and from a distance, including the location of traffic signs, crosswalks, and so forth. Also be sure to write down the names of police officers so it will be easier to get copies of their reports.
Never overlook the importance of seeking immediate medical attention. The whiplash motion caused by car accidents can produce injuries the victim may not notice at first, but that become more pronounced as time passes. As a potential plaintiff in a negligence case, you do not want the other driver’s attorney to belittle the severity of your injuries, based on the fact that you did not feel it necessary to seek treatment right away.
Of everything that can be done after a car accident to preserve a victim’s right to compensation, contacting a personal injury lawyer will have the greatest impact. Without the assistance of counsel, you will be alone and vulnerable to the tactics of the opposing side’s insurance company. The adjuster may pressure you to accept an unfair settlement, or to waive other rights. Before signing anything, be sure to consult an attorney.