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Accidents

Q. According to the law, how safely must I drive?
A.
You have to use reasonable care under the circumstances. Negligence the failure to
exercise such care is the most common basis for liability. However, ordinary negligence
does not mean you are guilty of reckless driving in the criminal sense. For such driving to
be unlawful, it must be willful or wanton as defined above.

Q. Do I owe a higher standard of care toward pedestrians?
A.
No, the same standard applies. Motorists must exercise reasonable care under the
circumstances toward pedestrians. In practical terms, this means keeping a careful lookout
for them, and maintaining control over your vehicle to avoid injuring them. You must also
sound your horn to warn of your approach when you believe that the pedestrian is unaware
of the danger. In some states, you must stop if you see a pedestrian anywhere in a
crosswalk.
The law does not, however, expect you to anticipate a pedestrian darting out into the
roadway.

Q. Do I owe the same duty of care toward my passengers?
A.
Generally, yes, although it may change based on your passengers' relationship to you.
However, as in all accidents, you will not be liable if a passenger sustains injury through
no fault of your own.

Q. To what standard of care am I held if someone else is driving my car in which I
am a passenger?
A.
The law in some states will assume you still have "control" over the vehicle. Other
states require the owner to take steps to stop the negligent driving as soon as the owner
becomes aware of it. In other words, as a car owner, you can be liable for more than just
your own negligent driving.

Q. Am I legally responsible even if I am not in the car if an accident occurs?
A.
Possibly. You still might be liable for property damage, injuries, and even death if you
permit someone else to operate your defective vehicle, or if you allow an inexperienced,
habitually intoxicated, or otherwise incompetent person to drive your car. The law refers
to this conduct as "negligent entrustment."

Q. What if my child is driving my car and an accident occurs?
A.
Some jurisdictions recognize the "family purpose doctrine," under which the "head" of
the family who maintains a car for general family use may be held liable for the negligent
driving of a family member who was authorized to use the vehicle. The fewer than twenty
states that adhere to this doctrine treat the family member as an agent of the vehicle
owner, who is presumed to be better able to satisfy property damage and injury claims.

Q. If I am involved in an accident, must I identify myself to other involved parties?
A.
In the past, common law did not require you to give your name before leaving an
accident scene. Modern laws that require you to identify yourself after an accident in
which someone is hurt or killed have survived court challenges. You should identify
yourself to a police officer (see below), and show your license and proof of insurance
coverage if asked. Otherwise, you do not have to, and probably should not, say anything.
Specifically, do not reveal how much insurance coverage you have, or admit liability.

What You Should Do If You Have an Accident
If possible, park on the shoulder of the road and do not obstruct traffic. Use your car's
flashers or flares to warn approaching motorists of the accident. If asked, give your name,
address, vehicle registration certificate, and proof of insurance to the other driver. Get the
same information from the other driver.
Write down the names and addresses of all passengers and possible witnesses. Also,
get the names and badge numbers of any police officers who respond to the scene. If you
have a camera handy, photograph damaged cars, skid marks, and the accident scene. Draw
a diagram of the accident and make notes about the weather, lighting conditions, and road
conditions. Most important, help any persons who are injured.
Do not make any statements about who you believe was at fault. Also, do not admit
blame to the other parties or witnesses. As soon as possible after the accident, notify your
insurance company. If you sustained any personal injury, seek medical attention promptly.
Consult an attorney if you intend to file suit.

Q. If I collide with a parked car, am I required to do anything?
A.
The law requires you to try to find the owner. Alternatively, you are permitted to attach
a written note to the parked car identifying yourself and your vehicle. You also should
notify the police.

Q. Must I tell the police if I am in an accident?
A.
Alert the police immediately if someone is hurt or killed. Generally, if the accident
involves a death, personal injury, or property damage above a specific amount that varies
among states, you must notify the police and file a written accident report immediately, or
within a short time span, usually five to ten days. Often, states require you to file the
report with the bureau of motor vehicles or similar state authority. Some states do not
require you to report an accident if no one is injured or if property damage is less than a
certain dollar amount. Other jurisdictions require a report only if no police officer
responded to the accident scene.

Q. What if I do not fill out an accident report?
A.
Failure to file a written report is a misdemeanor in most states. Some states may
suspend your driver's license until you file the report. Remember, by completing an
accident report, you are verifying that the report contains a recital of all important facts
known to you. Providing false information in a written report is illegal, and typically is
punished by a fine.

Q. Should I contact an attorney after the accident? What should I tell the lawyer?
A.
If you are filing a lawsuit against the other driver, you will hire your own lawyer. If the
other driver is suing you, your insurance company will provide a lawyer for you. At the
initial client interview, supply information about:
• your family status and employment situation;
• the accident, including witnesses' names and addresses; and
• your injuries.
If you are filing suit, tell the lawyer about all your out-of-pocket expenses, such as
doctors' bills, ambulance and hospital costs, automobile repairs, rental car costs, and any
lost income.

Q. What might happen if I believe the collision is at least partly my fault?
A.
You may not be in the best position to determine how the accident happened. Defective
equipment in your vehicle, a malfunctioning traffic signal, or the other driver's
intoxication are among the many possible causes of the accident. Accepting blame and
apologizing to the other driver may be used as evidence against you at trial. Leave it to the
judge or jury to decide who is at fault.

Q. If the accident is partly my fault, may I still receive payment for my injuries?
A.
The answer depends on whether you live in a contributory negligence, comparative
negligence, or no-fault jurisdiction. (See the discussion of no-fault insurance in the
"Insurance" section )

Q. What is contributory negligence?
A.
Essentially, contributory negligence bars you from recovering money for your injuries
if your own negligence in any way contributed to the accident's occurrence. The other
driver must prove that you were negligent.

Q. What is the logic behind this legal doctrine?
A.
The reasons behind contributory negligence range from punishing you for your own
misconduct to discouraging you from acting negligently again. Only a few states still
accept the concept of contributory negligence, which once was widely supported.

Q. What does "comparative negligence" mean?
A.
Adhered to in the vast majority of states, comparative negligence divides the damages
among the drivers involved in an accident based on their degree of fault. In "pure"
comparative negligence states, you can receive payment for your injuries regardless of
how much of the blame you carry for the accident, as long as the other driver is at fault to
some degree. In "modified" comparative fault states, you may recover payment only if
your own fault is below a certain threshold, such as 50 percent.

Q. How does comparative negligence work?
A.
As an example, you are involved in an accident in which you were driving ten miles
above the posted speed limit on an icy road. You believe, however, that the accident
occurred because the other driver ran a red light.
In a comparative negligence state, it is up to the fact-finder, be it judge or jury, after
hearing your case, to assign the degree of fault for each of you in terms of a percentage.
Suppose the fact-finder decides that your speeding was responsible for 20 percent of your
injuries, and the other driver's going through the red light contributed the remaining 80
percent. If the total amount of damages were $100,000, you would only recover $80,000.

 

 

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