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Elements of Negligence in Auto Accident Claims

Negligence must be established in a car accident claim in order for damages to be awarded. Insurance companies, attorneys, judges, and juries all use negligence determinations to decide who receives compensation and how much they get.

Every state has its own rules governing negligence. Most looks at the degree of fault that the injured party (plaintiff) and the defendant hold for the accident. Both can be partially responsible in comparative negligence claims and the plaintiff can still receive compensation.

What the Plaintiff and Defendant Try to Accomplish

The plaintiff must clearly document damages and prove the defendant caused the accident due to negligence in order to have a winning claim.

The defendant must prove he or she is not responsible or at least is not primarily responsible for the accident. By doing so, the defendant can reduce the amount of damages owed, or in some case, avoid paying damages at all.

Defendants attempt to defend their own actions and try to prove the plaintiff was negligent and therefore caused the accident or contributed to it in some way.

Elements of Proving Negligence

There are five elements that must be proven in any claim in order for negligence to be assigned:

  • Duty – the responsibility of each driver in safely operating a vehicle. For more information visit out Car Driver Duties page.
  • Breach of Duty – when a driver fails to perform his or her duty in operating a vehicle
  • Cause in Fact – showing a driver’s actions are directly at fault for injuries suffered
  • Proximate Cause – establishes the driver should have foreseen how his or her actions could result in an accident or injuries
  • Damages – damages and/or injuries recognized under the law

Defendants and plaintiff both use these same elements in establishing a case.

What Happens if the Defendant Was Not Careful?

Every driver on the road has a duty to ensure safety and prevent harm to others. A negligent plaintiff may hold some responsibility for an accident, but even so, a defendant that was not careful while driving can end up paying significant damages. This is particularly true in cases where:

  • pure contributory negligence is the rule of law

  • the defendant is found to hold the majority of responsibility for the accident

In states where modified contributory negligence is standard, the plaintiff’s percentage of fault reduces the amount of damages the defendant may owe. If the defendant is 99% responsible though, the plaintiff still has a powerful claim.

Most states operate from a modified negligence rule, but some use pure contributory negligence instead. In these states, even if the plaintiff is mostly responsible for his or her own injuries, the defendant can still end up paying a lot. As long as the plaintiff is able to establish the defendant was negligent at all, pure contributory negligence may leave the defendant responsible for any and all damages.

Losses Suffered by the Plaintiff

In car accident negligence claims, plaintiffs can potentially recover damages for a variety of losses, including:

  • physical injuries and medical expenses
  • lost wages and loss of future earnings
  • property damage expenses
  • pain and suffering

If a lawsuit is filed and the defendant is found to be grossly negligent, then punitive damages may also be awarded. These are over and above the “actual losses” or documented financial damages the plaintiff suffered.

Punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant and send a message to the public that certain behaviors are not tolerated. For these reasons, punitive damages usually carry a high dollar figure.

Getting Help with a Car Accident Claim

It can be challenging to understand the complexities of car accident negligence without legal help. An attorney can assist you in defending your position and in establishing fault or negligence. They can help you decide what damages to and reasonable expectations in contributory negligence cases given the legal statutes in your home state. If you'd like to speak with an attorney about your specific case, you can fill out the form for a Free Case Evaluation.