Understanding Car Crashes In New York

Before delving into the legal implications of a New York car crash, the first step is to label these incidents properly.

There is a growing movement afoot to replace car accident with car crash. After all, some point out, trains derail, planes crash, and ships sink. Furthermore, these people claim, “accident” implies an uncontrollable event that would have happened no matter what anyone did or did not do, and as discussed below, that is only the case in a tiny percentage of car crashes.

In 1997, the Massachusetts Highway Safety Department was one of the first government units to replace “accident” with “crash.” New York City did the same thing in 2014. Altogether, more than two dozen departments of transportation have made the switch. But not everyone shares this belief, as many people think that “accident” is properly synonymous with the unintentional negligence that causes a vast majority of car crashes.

“Accident” first entered the language in this context a little over a hundred years ago, when factory owners called workplace injuries “industrial accidents” to shift blame onto the workers and away from dangerous conditions in their facilities.


Car Crash Causes

Operator error causes about 95 percent of car crashes; most of the other 5 percent are caused by defective products, which is usually negligence of another sort. Some specific causes include:

  • Impairment: Both alcohol and certain drugs (whether they are illegal “street drugs” or prescription painkillers) delay reaction time, inhibit concentration, and impair judgment ability. These skills are all essential for driving.
  • Speed: Unsafe velocity increases braking distance, so speeding drivers have less time to react to emergency situations. Speed also multiples the force in collisions, so non-serious “fender benders” become serious or catastrophic collisions.
  • Distraction: Even hands-free cellphones are distracting, because users take their eyes off the road (visual distraction) and take their minds off the road (cognitive distraction). Manual distraction (taking one’s hand off the wheel) is the third distracted driving category.
  • Fatigue: Driving after eighteen hours without sleep is equivalent to driving with a .08 BAC. Shift workers are especially at-risk for drowsy driving.

Other operator negligence is environmental, because drivers do not properly adjust for adverse conditions. This is the reason that many roadways have one speed limit for daytime driving and a slower one for nighttime driving.


First Party Liability

Car crash victims have two ways to obtain compensation.

In a negligence case, victim/plaintiffs must establish the following elements:

  • Duty: Most drivers have a duty of reasonable care, a legal responsibility that’s essentially based on the Golden Rule that many American schoolchildren once learned.
  • Breach: If the tortfeasor’s (negligent driver’s) conduct falls below the standard of care, the tortfeasor breached the duty. For example, many jurors would excuse a driver who was rolling down a window moments before a crash, even though such activity could technically be distracted driving.
  • Cause: There must be a direct connection between the breach and the damages, an element some lawyers call “cause-in-fact” or “but-for causation.”
  • Foreseeability: It is foreseeable that a driver who runs off the road might strike a pedestrian, but it is not foreseeable that a surgeon takes off the wrong leg during surgery.
  • Damages: Although compensation is usually available for emotional distress and other noneconomic damages, the plaintiff must have some physical injury to person or property.

Plaintiffs must prove each element by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not).

If the tortfeasor broke a safety law, like DUI, the negligence per se shortcut will probably apply. In these cases, the plaintiff need only establish that the tortfeasor broke any safety law, including a non-penal statute or municipal ordinance, and the violation proximately caused the injury (foreseeability).


Some Insurance Company Defenses

In multi-vehicle collisions, insurance company attorneys often roll out the contributory negligence defense. This legal doctrine shifts blame to the victim and is available if both people were at fault, e.g. the tortfeasor was drunk and the victim was speeding. Since New York is a pure comparative fault state, the judge apportions damages based solely on the percentage of liability, so theoretically, a victim could be 99 percent responsible for the crash and still obtain damages.

In pedestrian or bicycle injury cases, lawyers usually try the sudden emergency defense. This doctrine applies if the tortfeasor:

  • Faced a completely unexpected situation, like a hood fly-up, and
  • Reacted reasonably after the sudden emergency.

A pedestrian crossing against the light is not usually a “sudden emergency,” because pedestrians jaywalk almost every hour of every day, so drivers should expect such situations.

Start your injury claim right away with a qualified New York personal injury attorney.