Getting into a car accident is not only traumatizing, but the aftermath is time-consuming and stressful. Many car accident victims are unsure of the right thing to say or whether the insurance company is truly on their side. Read more to find out the meaning of various legal terms and processes that will determine the outcome of your case.
WHAT DOES LIABILITY MEAN?
After youve been in an accident, you will likely hear your insurance company or attorney discuss liability. Although the term may be common to them, you may be unsure of what liability means and how it applies to your case. The short answer is that liability generally means who is at fault. Liability determines who will pay for any damages (discussed below) arising out of your car accident. This is why the first question any one investigating your case (a police officer, insurance company, or attorney) will ask is who is liable for the accident. Liability is often clear (meaning its obvious who was at fault), in the following situations:
- Someone rear ends another driver because they were texting.
- Someone runs a red light and runs into a car in the intersection.
- A driver swerves into oncoming traffic
- A drunk driver runs into a parked car.
In these types of situations, liability is almost always clear, and insurance companies, law enforcement and attorneys will easily pin the blame on a single driver. These cases are the easiest to win because theres often no need to fight over different versions of the story. All your attorney will have to do is prove how much money you are owed.
But what happens when liability isnt so obvious? Whos at fault in a car accident may seem black and white to the party shouting he hit me! But, determining liability is not always easy; and more often than not, several factors can complicate the issue of who is liable for an accident. Consider the following situations:
- Driver A is speeding 10 miles over the speed limit and gets into an accident with Driver B, who was texting and did nothing to avoid the accident.
- Two drivers come to a stop at a stop sign, but collide in the intersection.
- A pedestrian runs into a busy street outside of the crosswalk at night, and is hit by Driver A who was briefly distracted by an incoming phone call.
In these situations, its not so easy to only blame only one party for the accident. In all of these scenarios, either party could have done something to avoid the accident, but didnt. For this reason, an insurance company or attorney for the other side will be reluctant to accept blame and just settle the case. In fact, depending on the situation, they may outright refuse to accept any fault at all. An attorney can be most beneficial in these situations where the case will undoubtedly involve complex questions of law and require in depth investigation, called discovery.
WHAT DOES NEGLIGENCE MEAN?
Liability and negligence are closely related legal terms. Someone is liable (meaning at fault) if they were negligent in some manner. Negligence generally refers to the action that someone took or did not take to cause an accident. Negligence is based on the belief that other drivers have a responsibility to do everything within their power when they are on the road to avoid an accident.
As in most situations where liability is clear, its often easy to determine just how another person was negligent (i.e.- they ran a red light, or were texting while driving). But, where it is unclear whether someone did something wrong, whether or not they were negligent becomes complicated. And, complicating the issue even further?negligence in a legal sense means that someones action actually caused the accident. This is called causation. Its not just enough to show that they did something wrong, you have to show that the other partys wrongful action caused the accident.
Consider the scenario where a pedestrian runs into a busy street outside of the crosswalk at night, and is hit by Driver A, who was briefly distracted by the radio. Did Driver A actually cause the accident with the pedestrian? Driver As attorney will certainly argue that, although he was on the phone, he didnt cause the accident?it was the pedestrians fault for running into the street. Moreover, Driver A will argue that the accident would have occurred even if he wasnt on the phone. Essentially, its not uncommon for a defendant in a car accident case to simply say Sure, I was speeding, but thats not what caused the accident to avoid legal liability.
HOW DO I PROVE NEGLIGENCE IN A PHILADELPHIA CAR ACCIDENT CASE?
When liability is not clear, your attorney will have to prove that the other party was actually negligent. To prove other driver was negligence (and therefore liable for your accident), you have to prove that 1) the other party acted wrongfully, 2) the wrongful act caused the accident 3) you suffered some financial loss resulting from the accident.
As discussed above, its often easy to prove that the other driver did something wrong. This can be as simple as arguing that they failed to keep a proper lookout or that he was speeding.
But, the most challenging element to prove is often causation in many negligent car accident cases. To do this, your attorney will attempt to prove that, if not for the other drivers actions, the accident would not have occurred. An experienced car accident attorney can build a case that proves that the other drivers actions alone caused the accident. This is important because, without any evidence of causation, you will have a weak case.
Next, you will need to prove that you incurred some damage as a result of the accident. This usually is not an issue in car accident cases where there is usually some damage to a drivers vehicle. But, what about instances where there is no real damage? In this case, you probably cannot win your case, even if you can prove that the other driver acted wrongfully and actually caused an accident. This is usually an issue when a driver claims physical injuries and there are questions of whether or not the accident actually caused those injuries. As discussed below, medical damages are often difficult to prove in many car accident cases.
WHAT ARE DAMAGES AND WHAT KIND OF DAMAGES CAN I GET IN A CAR ACCIDENT CASE?
Damages refer to the things you can get money for. In Philadelphia, you can get damages for the following:
- Property damage (damage done to your vehicle or other property in a car accident).
- Medical expenses (cost of hospital bills)
- Lost wages (the amount of time you were unable to work as a result of the accident).
- Pain and suffering (the amount a jury determines you should get for the physical and emotional pain youve experienced)
- Punitive damages (the amount the jury determines is necessary to punish the other side for your accident).
Most people can easily recover damages for their property damage, lost wages, and medical expenses, as you just have to have receipts pertaining to the cost of your vehicle repair and the amount of medical bills youve incurred following your injury. For example, if an accident resulted in $5,000 in repairs needed for your car, you lost $1,500 in wages, and amassed $10,000 in medical bills, you would be entitled to a $16,500 recovery in most cases.
Damages for pain and suffering, on the other hand, are basically the dollar value the jury assigns to any pain and suffering youve endured following an accident. For example, if youve suffered extreme migraines, sleep lost, or can no do your same level of physical activity due to back pain, a jury can assign a (random) dollar amount to the pain and suffering. The more youve suffered or the greater pain youve endured, the greater the pain and suffering damages will be. For example, someone who lost the ability to walk can recover much greater pain and suffering damages compared to someone who suffers back aches resulting from an accident.
Punitive damages are only available where the driver has done something that rises to the level of recklessness, as opposed to making a mistake or driving a few miles over the speed limit. Drunk driving, speeding very fast, or texting in a school zone can all warrant punitive damages. Punitive damages are limited to two times the amount of actual damages (property damage, lost wages, and medical expenses).
WHAT EVIDENCE DO I NEED IN A CAR ACCIDENT CASE?
In any car accident case, you will need evidence of two things- 1) negligence and 2) damages. To prove negligence, your attorney will need to gather various types of evidence, including surveillance video, police reports, witness statements, accident reports, and may even subpoena phone records if it is suspected that the other driver was on the phone at the time of the accident. In serious cases, an attorney may request the assistance of an expert who can testify to what caused an accident.
An experienced car accident attorney will seek to prove economic damages, and in some cases, punitive damages. Economic damages include the tangible things you can assign a dollar amount to?the cost of repairing or replacing your car, the amount of wages you lost while receiving medical treatment, and the cost of your medical bills. Receipts, estimates, billing statements, and paystubs can all prove these items.
To receive pain and suffering damages, your attorney will gather more circumstantial evidence, such as doctors notes stating that an accident victim receives treatment for chronic back pain, or takes anti-anxiety medication to treat post-accident trauma. Photographs of bruises or other lesions can help prove to a jury the severity of your wounds, and how much pain you actually suffered. Your own deposition testimony can also be used to prove that damages for pain and suffering are warranted.
Because punitive damages are only available where a driver was particularly reckless while on the road, your attorney must prove that something that the other driver did, in fact, rose to this level. The same evidence to prove negligence can therefore be used to prove that punitive damages are warranted in your case. For example, expert testimony on the difference between four beers and nine beers can establish for a jury just how drunk a driver was when he got behind a wheel of a car. Again, the worse a drivers behavior, the more likely it is a jury will award punitive damages in you case.
DOES THE TYPE OF INSURANCE I HAVE IMPACT MY CASE?
The type of insurance you have will absolutely impact the damages you can recover in a Pennsylvania auto accident. In Pennsylvania, auto insurers give you the option to elect either full tort or limited tort coverage, which basically determines the types of damages you can recover. Limited tort insurance is cheaper, though it may end up costing you more in the long run. If youve elected full tort coverage, you can seek both economic damages, as well as damages for pain and suffering. If youve elected only limited tort coverage, you can only recover economic damages. Consider the following scenario:
- Driver A has full tort auto insurance, and is rear-ended by Driver B. He is treated for a broken rib and back pain. The back pain becomes chronic and he can no longer lift heavy items at work, and is unable to work for several weeks.
His economic damages include 1) $5,000 in car repairs 2) $10,000 in medical bills 3) $5,000 in lost wages. His total economic damages are $20,000.
But, because Driver A has elected full tort coverage, he can also seek pain and suffering damages, which can double, triple or even quadruple his recovery amount. Instead of recovering only $20,000 with limited tort insurance, Driver A could receive $40,000 or $60,000 (if hes been seriously injured) for his pain and suffering. Note that there is no formula for calculating pain and suffering damages, and that each individual case is unique.
WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE DRIVER WAS AT FAULT?
Pennsylvania law requires that damages be apportioned between any party who was at fault for an accident. This means that no person pays more than his share of damages. If several drivers were involved in a car accident, for example, the jury would hear the evidence pertaining to each drivers role in the accident and assign a percentage of fault to that driver. For example:
- Driver A was texting when he entered the intersection and hit Driver C.
- Driver B was also on her phone at the time and also hit Driver C, causing further damage.
A jury could determine that Driver A was 51% at fault and that Driver B was 49% at fault. Driver A would pay 51% of the damages awarded to Driver C, and Driver B would pay 49% of the damages. Or, if the injured driver was also at fault, then the jury would take into consideration their role in the accident as well.
DO I HAVE TO GO TO TRIAL IN A CAR ACCIDENT CASE?
Trial is always the last step in any civil case, including car accidents. The first step in a car accident case is usually to send a demand letter to the at-fault partys insurance company requesting the damages your attorney believes you are entitled to. This typically occurs before any lawsuit has been filed.
If the insurance company does not pay the claim, your attorney will then file a lawsuit on your behalf. This will begin the discovery process where both parties request evidence from each other. At the close of discovery, either side my file a motion with the court, called a motion for summary judgment, where they try to convince the judge why the case should win or lose. The judge may either decide the case or determine that the case should go to a jury.
Even if the judge makes this determination, both parties may attempt settlement to prevent the case from having to go to trial. Parties typically settle a case before trial, but if they do not, then trial will go forward and a jury will determine who will win the case.
Pennsylvania car accidents can raise various questions of law that can significantly reduce a plaintiffs chance of recovering what is owed to them. An experienced personal injury attorney can build a strong case through gathering evidence, negotiating on your behalf, or even filing a lawsuit against the at-fault party. If necessary, an attorney may even determine that trial is the best option to get the recovery you deserve. Throughout the process, you may be asked to give deposition testimony, ensure you see medical treatment for your injuries, or undergo medical evaluations to determine the cause and extent of your injuries.
Although common, resolving car accident cases are almost never simply a matter of requesting a check from the insurance company. Always consult with an attorney before you accept any settlement in your case. If youve been injured or have lasting injuries, its likely that you will be entitled to damages for pain and suffering, or even punitive damages in your case. If you have questions, contact a Philadelphia injury lawyer who can assess your case today.