If you’ve been injured in a car accident and can demonstrate that the defendant caused you to suffer harm due to his or her negligent, reckless, or wrongful conduct, you may be entitled to recover significant damages as compensation.
Car accident litigation can involve many variables, depending on the circumstances. Though some lawsuits can be resolved in a straightforward manner, others may involve complicated issues of liability, such as splitting fault between multiple co-defendants and establishing potential employer liability or manufacturer liability (for product defects).
Given the fact that car accident litigation — and personal injury disputes in general — can be inherently unpredictable, it’s important that you work with a team of attorneys who are capable of dynamically responding and adapting to changing circumstances over the course of a lawsuit. We encourage you to contact an experienced attorney or assistance with your car accident claims.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q: Is there a deadline for pursuing a car accident lawsuit?
A: Yes, there is, though it may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
In some states, the statute of limitations deadline for personal injury claims is two years from the date of injury, whereas in others, the deadline may be three years. Regardless of the specific length of the deadline, however, if you do not file your lawsuit before the deadline passes, then your case will no longer be actionable in a court of law.
It’s worth noting that if the defendant is a public entity or employee, then your claim will be subject to an alternative procedure and shorter timeline. As such, it’s critical that you get in touch with an attorney who can evaluate your claims and file them in a timely manner.
If you’ve waited too long and passed the deadline, then you may still be able to bring a claim if one of the various statute of limitations exceptions applies to your claim. For example, if you did not discover your injury until a later date (and you could not have reasonably discovered the injury until that date), then your statute of limitations deadline will begin at that “date of discovery.”
Q: Can I obtain compensation for my injuries if I am partially at fault for causing the accident?
A: Yes, though your ability to recover will vary substantially from state-to-state.
There are essentially three main doctrines of fault distribution (though additional variations do exist): pure comparative negligence, modified comparative negligence, and contributory negligence.
In some states, courts apply a doctrine known as pure comparative negligence. What this means is that the fault of each party — including the injured plaintiff — will be assessed. Once the fault of each party is accurately determined, the plaintiff may recover a percentage of the total damages based on the fault determination. For example, if you are 30 percent at fault for your own injuries (perhaps because you did not wear a seatbelt), then you would be entitled to 70 percent of your total damages. It should be noted that the doctrine of “pure comparative negligence” allows injured plaintiffs to recover even if they are 99 percent at-fault, though of course their damages will be rather minimal.
The doctrine of modified comparative negligence is the same as pure comparative negligence in many respects (i.e., fault will be assessed and will influence the plaintiff’s total damage recovery), except that the plaintiff is prohibited from recovering any damages if they have contributed more fault to the accident than the defendant(s). If a plaintiff is 51 percent or more liable, then they will recover nothing.
Finally, the doctrine of pure contributory negligence is perhaps the strictest. Under contributory negligence rules, if you are even partially at fault for your own injuries (i.e., 1 percent) then you will be precluded from any recovery. For example, if you don’t wear your seatbelt and are subsequently injured in a car accident, then you’ll likely be unable to secure damages in a contributory negligence state.
Q: What do I have to do to prove that the defendant acted negligently and is therefore liable for my injuries?
A: Proving negligence can be a challenge, depending on the circumstances. Negligence requires that you show:
- That the defendant owed you a duty of care;
- That the defendant violated that duty of care; and
- That the defendant’s violation of that duty of care caused you to suffer harm.
In a straightforward situation involving a negligent driver, the “duty” element is easy to establish, as drivers owe all others on the roadway a duty of care. It may be somewhat more difficult to show that the driver violated the standard of care that is attached to that duty, however. For example, if the weather conditions were poor at the time of the accident, you’ll have to demonstrate that a “reasonable driver” in the same circumstances would have acted differently than the defendant.
Q: What are punitive damages and under what circumstances am I entitled to them?
A: Punitive damages are quite different than compensatory damages, in that they are intended to punish defendants who engage in malicious or particularly reckless or egregious behaviors. As such, the damages are linked to compensatory damages but are not limited to the actual losses suffered. Courts apply punitive damages as a way of imposing significant “bonus” damages when necessary to discourage others from engaging in the same dangerous behaviors.
It’s worth noting that punitive damages are somewhat rare. They are only awarded in situations where you can prove that the defendant was willfully malicious or recklessly indifferent to the safety of others. In the car accident context, defendants who engage in drunk driving may be subject to such penalties.
Q: What happens if the defendant-driver is uninsured?
A: If the defendant-driver is uninsured, you may be limited to recovering damages through your first-party insurance coverage or — if that is insufficient — pursuing claims against other liable defendants.
Sadly, the issue of uninsured drivers is a common one based on current statistics from the Insurance Information Institute (III). However, in the context of car accidents, there are a number of potentially liable third-parties, from employers to property owners to vehicle owners. For example, suppose that you are injured by an uninsured driver. You further investigate the defendant and discover that they were acting within the course and scope of their employment at the time of the accident (delivering goods to a retail store on behalf of their employer), thus exposing the employer to liability under the doctrine of vicarious liability. You could therefore sue and recover your damages in full from the employer.
About the Author:
Attorney Gregory Lyon attended Loyola University School of Law in Chicago where he earned his Juris Doctorate degree in 1974. Mr. Lyon is currently admitted in all Arizona courts including the Supreme Court of Arizona, Federal District Court of Arizona and the Supreme Court of the United States. He is a member of the Arizona State Bar Association, Arizona Trial Lawyer Association and the American Bar Association. Mr. Lyon has limited his practice to representing injured people for over 40 years. During that time he has handled thousands of automobile accidents, slip and fall, dog bites, product liability, medical malpractice, and wrongful death cases.