The first thing to know about liability in car wreck cases is knowing what to call them, because the right language sets the proper tone for the jury.
In 2014, New York City joined San Francisco and several other major municipalities in replacing “accident” with “crash” when discussing vehicle collisions. After all, the reasoning goes, planes crash, ships sink, and trains wreck, so cars should crash. Advocates, such as National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head Mark Rosekind, believe that calling these incidents “accident” implies that the crash was an unavoidable act that was entirely unpreventable, and in most cases, that is not true. Other organizations, including the state of Nevada and the Associated Press, have made similar moves. Not everyone agrees. Some people point out that “accidental” is also synonymous with “unintentional,” and all negligence events, including car crashes, are unintentional by definition.
Early 1900s factory owners were some of the first people to use “accident” in this context, calling workplace injuries “industrial accidents” to shift blame away from their dangerous facilities and onto supposedly careless workers.
Legal responsibility is the first element in a negligence case. Most drivers have a duty of reasonable care, a principle first articulated by Lord James Atkin in Donoghue v. Stevenson. The case involved a woman who sued a bottler for negligence after she found a dead snail in the bottom of her beer bottle. Lord Atkin responded with what came to be called the neighbor principle. “You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour,” he wrote, adding that neighbors are “persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected.”
According to this definition, in car crash cases, anyone else on or near the road is a motorists’ neighbor.
In most states, truck drivers, Uber drivers, taxi drivers, and other commercial operators have a higher duty of care as common carriers. But in 1998, a New York court abolished this distinction in the Empire State, even though a higher duty had been the law for about a century and a half. Instead, according to the court in Bethel v. NYC Transit Authority, a “more universal standard of reasonable care under all of the circumstances of the particular case” now applies to both commercial and noncommercial drivers.
Simply stated, a breach of the duty of reasonable care is any act or omission that abnormally increases the risk for a car crash.
- Behavioral: Before drivers even start their engines, they have a duty to be well-rested, sober, and otherwise in a physical condition that’s conducive to operating heavy machinery.
- Operational: As they drive, operators have a responsibility to concentrate on driving, obey the speed limit, stop at stop signs, and otherwise obey “the rules of the road.
- Environmental: The operational duty is even higher in some situations. For example, if it is raining and the roads are wet, drivers have a duty to slow down and drive even more carefully than normal.
In many of these cases, the negligence per se rule applies; negligence per se basically means “negligence as a matter of law.” In New York, the tortfeasor (negligent driver) is automatically liable for damages if the tortfeasor violated a safety statute and that violation proximately caused the victim’s injury.
Cause has both factual and legal elements.
Factual causation is sometimes called “but-for causation.” For example, if a tortfeasor ignored a red light and hit another car in the intersection, the crash would not have occurred “but for” the tortfeasor’s negligence. Like breach, factual causation is an issue for the jury to decide.
On the other hand, legal causation, or foreseeability, is usually a legal issue. Essentially, there must be a direct connection between the breach and the damages. In one famous case, a railroad company was held not liable for damages after a passenger dropped a package of fireworks; the explosion created a shockwave that knocked a large scale onto a victim on the other side of the platform. However, it is foreseeable that if Driver A hits Driver B, the impact may force Driver B’s vehicle into a pedestrian, thus causing serious injury.
Courts sometimes use a broader zone of danger test to determine foreseeability. For example, if a child is injured in a car crash and the parents were in the car as well, the parents may be eligible for damages even if they were not physically injured.
In most cases, monetary compensation is the only available remedy in negligence cases. This compensation includes money for medical bills, lost wages, property damage, and other economic losses.
Additionally, if the victim suffered a serious injury, which is defined as a fracture, loss of function, disfigurement, or any other injury that inhibits everyday activities for 90 out of the 180 days following the crash, the victim is entitled to noneconomic damages. This category includes money for:
- Pain and suffering,
- Loss of consortium (companionship),
- Emotional distress, and
- Loss of enjoyment in life.
In certain cases, such as an alcohol-involved crash that featured a highly intoxicated tortfeasor, additional punitive damages may be available as well. Basically, the victim/plaintiff must prove that the tortfeasor intentionally disregarded a known risk and thereby put other people in jeopardy.
If you or a loved one was injured or killed because of someone else’s negligence, contact an experienced New York personal injury attorney from Napoli Shkolnik PLLC today, because you have a limited amount of time to act.