Car Accident Injury Cases: The Basics

If you've been injured in a car accident, start here to learn about the legal issues involved.

When a car accident occurs, in most states the at-fault driver will be on the financial hook for damages and injuries resulting from the crash. From a practical standpoint, it's the at-fault driver's insurance company that will cover most injury claims arising from the accident, and the driver will "pay" in the form of a raised car insurance premium.

But laws and rules that apply to car accident cases are different from state to state. How will an injury claim be affected if more than one driver is responsible for causing the accident? And how do injury claims work in the dozen or so "no fault" car insurance states? In this article, we'll take a closer look at the these issues, and a few more.

Determining Fault for a Car Accident

If you live in a "fault" state (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming), proving fault and liability for any resulting injuries and damage will be the crux of your case.

If you're in one of the few "no fault" states, see the Car Accidents in "No Fault States" section down below.

While differences in the law have a major impact on what happens after a car accident, nothing has a bigger impact than the determination of who was at fault.

Sometimes, fault is very straightforward and everyone is aware that one of the drivers broke the rules of the road and should be held responsible (as with an accident where a driver rear-ends another vehicle and three impartial witnesses saw what happened.

Other times, it is not clear who was at fault. To prove liability in a car accident case, there are four things that an injured person must prove:

1. A legal duty was owed

In the case of car accidents, the duty is the one that all drivers owe to other drivers on the road. If you get behind the wheel of a car, you owe a legal duty to everyone else on the road -- drivers, passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists -- to operate your vehicle with a reasonable standard of care.

2. A duty was breached

This means that the plaintiff has to prove the defendant was negligent in fulfilling the duty of care. Since the duty is to behave as a reasonably prudent driver would, the "reasonable person" standard is used as a measure of whether a breach exists in car accidents. This means the behavior of the driver who is supposedly at fault is compared to what a reasonable driver would have done. If a reasonable driver would have been more careful, then the driver in question can be considered negligent and thus can be considered to be (at least partially) at fault. Proof that a driver was cited for a traffic violation in connection with the accident will go a long way toward establishing that a duty was breached.

3. The breach of duty led to injuries

It isn't enough for the other driver to have been negligent; that alone won't make him responsible for an accident and injuries. The driver's negligence had to have actually been the direct or proximate cause of the accident, which means that the accident would not have happened if the other driver had been more careful.

Shared Fault in Car Accident Cases

If the injured person shares some amount of blame for causing the car accident, it could have an effect on the amount of compensation he or she can recover. And in some cases, an injured claimant won’t be able to recover anything at all from other at-fault parties, if the claimant is also deemed at fault for the accident. The impact that shared fault will have depends on the rules in place in your state.

Pure Comparative Fault States. In these states an injured driver who played a role in causing the accident can still collect damages from other at-fault persons, in an amount that depends on the injured person’s share of the fault. So, if Dan is 70% responsible for causing the accident, and his damages add up to $10,000, he can collect $3,000 from other at-fault parties.

Modified Comparative Fault States. In these states, if Dan is injured in a car accident, he can only collect damages from other at-fault parties if he is less than 50 percent responsible for the accident. So, sticking with the above example, if Dan’s share of the blame drops to 40%, he can collect $6,000. But if he is still deemed 70% responsible, he can’t collect anything at all.

Contributory Negligence States. In a handful of states, a person who shares any amount of blame for the accident (even one percent or less) will have their injury claim barred altogether, and will be unable to get compensation from any other party.  

Car Accidents in “No Fault States”

In the dozen or so "no fault" states (District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Utah), an injured driver turns first (and usually exclusively) to his or her own car insurance coverage after a car accident, no matter who actually caused the accident. The only way that a person can step outside the "no fault" system and file a lawsuit against the negligent driver is if the case meets the "serious injury" or monetary threshold in place in the state.

To learn how no-fault injury claims work, see Car Accidents & Personal Injury Claims in a No-Fault State.

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