Car Accident Lawsuits

Despite significant improvements in automobile safety and in the design of roads, car accidents remain quite common. It is likely that any given person will be involved in at least one serious automobile accident during his or her lifetime. This article explores when a car accident may result in litigation.

If you are involved in a car accident, you may benefit from reviewing our suggestions about what to do after a car accident.

Litigation After Car Accidents

Most automobile accident litigation involves accidents between two vehicles, with a driver or passenger from the first vehicle claiming that the driver of the second vehicle caused the accident through negligent driving. Sometimes litigation will occur between the driver and passenger of a single vehicle, with the passenger claiming injury as a result of the driver's negligence. At times, litigation will be against a governmental agency that is alleged to have failed to properly design or maintain a roadway or intersection.

Not every car accident will result in litigation. Where nobody is injured or injuries are minor, it may be possible to resolve all claims for medical care and property damage directly with the drivers' car insurance companies. The greater the damage or injury that results from a car accident, the more likely it is that a lawsuit will follow.

Causes of Car Accidents

Motor vehicle accidents have a very broad range of causes, including:

  • Driver Error - The most common cause of car accidents is driver error. Common errors that contribute to accidents include failure to yield the right of way, following too closely, driving at excessive speeds, unsafe passing, and disregard of traffic control devices.

  • Distractions - When a driver's attention becomes diverted from the road, the chances of an accident increase. Distractions may arise from outside of the vehicle, such as when something at the side of the road draws a driver's attention away from the road. Distractions also occur inside cars, such as where the driver attempts to read or put on makeup while driving, change the song playing on the radio or music player, texts, dials a cellular phone, or attempts to parent an upset or unruly child.

  • Intoxication- As compared to sober drivers, motorists whose ability to drive is impaired as a result of the consumption of alcohol or drugs are considerably more likely to cause car accidents.

  • Bad Weather - At times, bad weather conditions will contribute to an accident by interfering with visibility, diminishing traction on the road surface, or otherwise making it more difficult to drive a car. A driver should take the effects of the weather, such as strong cross-winds or slippery roads, into consideration when driving. Sometimes the weather will cause an unexpected hazard, such as black ice or flash flooding, which may not be detected by a driver until it is too late to avoid the hazard.

  • Road Design - A poorly designed roadway, intersection, or means of controlling traffic may at times cause or contribute to an accident. Poorly placed and poorly designed road signs or barriers can cause unnecessary injury when vehicles collide with them. At times, such defects may result in liability by the governmental agency responsible for the design and maintenance of the roadway.

  • Road Conditions - The conditions of a roadway may be poor or dangerous for a number of reasons, including bad weather, poor design or maintenance, or the presence of objects or debris on the roadway.

  • Vehicle Defects - At times an accident will result from a defect with a driver's vehicle, such as a tire blowout, brake failure, or other mechanical failure. Sometimes the injuries suffered in an accident will be made worse by a design or manufacturing defect with a vehicle, such as a design defect which makes an SUV more susceptible to rolling over in an accident or a gas tank more likely to ignite in a collision, or a manufacturing defect that causes a seat belt to fail or an airbag to deploy improperly.

Car accident cases that involve vehicle defects or defective parts may involve a product liability claim against the manufacturer of a vehicle or part of a vehicle, based upon the assertion that a design or manufacturing defect in the vehicle or part contributed to the accident. A claim might also arise against a mechanic or service center whose work left a vehicle in a hazardous condition.

Special Issues

Special issues can arise in automobile litigation that make it more difficult to litigate a car accident claim, that potentially make additional parties potentially liable for injuries, or which must be considered during the course of litigating a case. Special issues that may arise from the accident itself include:

  • Hit-and-Run Accidents - Where the driver who causes an accident fails to stop at the accident scene, it may be difficult for the victim of the accident to later identify the at-fault driver in order to obtain compensation or to proceed with a lawsuit against that driver.

  • Car-Pedestrian Accidents - Where a motor vehicle collides with a pedestrian, the pedestrian will often suffer catastrophic injury. Pedestrians often have difficulty making claims against drivers, with accidents frequently attributed to the conduct of the pedestrian.

  • Car-Motorcycle Accidents - Motorcycle drivers are susceptible to serious injury, even in collisions which would be relatively minor had they occurred between cars. Some suggest that motorcyclists suffer from a predisposition by juries to blame them for causing an accident, even where the driver of a car was clearly negligent.

  • Car-Bicycle Accidents - Bicyclists are vulnerable to serious injury when hit by cars, and are also susceptible to having drivers open car doors in front of their oncoming bicycles - a hazard that can cause them to be catapulted over the car door in a collision. Drivers often report that they did not see the bicyclist until after the collision, or that they misjudged the bicyclist's speed. Some bicyclists engage in very hazardous actions, such as ignoring traffic signals or riding on the wrong side of the road, making an accident much more likely.

  • Bus Accidents - Bus accidents can be quite serious when other vehicles are involved, given the relative size and mass of a typical bus, and the fact that passengers are usually unrestrained. Special issues can arise in accidents involving school buses, and in the context of the loading and unloading of passengers.

  • Semi Truck / Tractor-Trailer Accidents - The drivers of "big rigs" are subject to state and federal regulation, governing such issues as how many hours a day they can drive, how much sleep they are to get each night and the condition and maintenance of their trucks. Many drivers are paid by the mile driven, and thus have a strong incentive to ignore rules that limit their driving time. When a semi truck driver causes an accident, the consequences to any smaller vehicle and its passengers can be devastating.

  • After-Market Vehicle Modifications - When a vehicle has after-market modifications, such as being raised or lowered, having powerful or tinted headlights or fog lights installed, or even by window tinting, those modifications may affect both the safety of the vehicle for its occupants and the hazard posed by the vehicle to other drivers.

  • Accidents Caused by Road Debris - Road debris may contribute to or cause an accident, whether in the form of objects or parts which have fallen off of vehicles, or debris that is kicked up from the roadway and collides with another vehicle. It is often difficult to determine who was at fault for the presence of objects or debris on the road. States may also limit liability claims against the person responsible for the presence of an object or debris based upon how long it was on the road before the accident occurred.

Issues Affecting Liability

Special issues that may affect an injured person's ability to recover compensation for injuries include:

    Governmental Immunity - When the driver of the vehicle that causes an accident is a governmental employee who is working at the time of the accident, or where the accident involves a government-owned vehicle, legislatures may limit an injury victim's ability to sue the driver or government agency.

    Owner Liability - Where the driver of a vehicle has the owner's permission to operate that vehicle, many jurisdictions will hold the owner jointly liable for injuries caused by the driver's negligent operation of the vehicle.

    Employer Liability - Where an employee is driving a vehicle on the job or, as the lawyers might say, "within the course and scope of employment", an employer may be jointly liable for injuries caused by the employee's negligent driving conduct.

    Work-Related Phone Usage: Courts are increasingly receptive to the argument that where a driver who causes an accident is talking or texting on a cellular phone, the phone usage was work-related, and the driver's employer expects employees to handle work-related phone calls or messages while driving, the employer may share liability for an accident caused by the employee.

Insurance Coverage

The insurance problems car accident victims have with insurance coverage typically fall into three categories:

  • Uninsured Driver - Where the at-fault driver is uninsured, it can be difficult for a person who is injured in a car accident to obtain appropriate compensation. Where the injured person is uninsured, states are increasingly modifying their laws to limit the uninsured accident victim's right to sue for pain and suffering damages. Many drivers carry uninsured motorist coverage through their own automobile insurance policies, so that they have a potential source of compensation in the event that they are injured by a driver who has failed to carry insurance or who cannot be identified.

  • Underinsured Driver - Similar to the uninsured driver, some drivers carry inadequate insurance coverage, often at the minimum level required by state law. Many states have very low insurance requirements, which unfortunately means that some of the worst drivers on the road carry inadequate coverage due to the high cost of insurance that results from their bad driving records. Some car insurance companies offer underinsured motorist coverage, so drivers can protect themselves in the event that they are in an accident caused by somebody who carries inadequate coverage.

  • Insurance Company Bad Faith - When people make claims with their insurance companies, they sometimes run into difficulty with the insurance company's refusal to negotiate the claim fairly. For example, an insurance company may refuse to offer fair value for a totaled car. In no-fault states, where drivers insure for their own accident-related medical care, a bad faith claim may allege the improper denial of coverage or reimbursement by the insurance company.

The Statute of Limitations

A statute of limitations is a law that imposes a time limit on the filing of a lawsuit to recover damages from another person, including claims for damages to persons or property resulting from a motor vehicle accident. Once the statute of limitations expires, a lawsuit cannot be sustained against a defendant who properly raises a statute of limitations defense. Any person who is considering bringing a legal claim as a result of a car accident should note that their ability to pursue their claim will be limited by the statute of limitations for the jurisdiction where the accident occurred.

It is best to pursue any legal claim arising from a motor vehicle accident well before the statute of limitations runs. If an injured person is concerned that the statute of limitations has run or is about to run, that person should consult a personal injury lawyer for a review of statute of limitations issues and, if possible, to get a lawsuit filed before it becomes time-barred.

Copyright © 2006 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Jul 20, 2016.