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Violations of Traffic Laws as Proof of Liability in Car Accidents

When a vehicle accident results in damage, injury, or death, the party whose carelessness (negligence) caused the accident may be held financially liable, in whole or in part, for the damages and injuries sustained. The process of determining who was “at fault” varies from state to state, and some states do not require any determination of who was at fault, but rely on “no-fault” insurance held by each driver to compensate for the damage, regardless of who was at fault.

Negligence and Negligence Per Se

The majority of accident cases are settled by insurance companies, but many still result in lawsuits. In states where fault does affect liability, an evaluation is made as to which driver was negligent. This usually entails a determination of whether the driver:

  • Owed a duty to the injured party;
  • Breached or violated that duty;
  • The injured party actually suffered some loss or injury; and
  • The injury was directly caused by the actions of the driver.

If the driver was violating a traffic law at the time of the accident and this was a cause of the accident, under the laws of many states, the driver is deemed “negligent per se.” This can mean that the driver’s negligence is considered proven, regardless of other conditions or factors. The driver may therefore be held liable for the resulting damages.

Defenses to Negligence Per Se

However, in many states, there are defenses to such liability. These defenses, and what may be required to assert such a defense, may vary from state to state. In some states, the breach of a traffic law may be deemed excusable. Examples include involuntarily loss of control of the car due to some force beyond the driver’s control or an unforeseeable event, such as equipment failure.

One such defense, which is accepted in some states, is a “sudden medical emergency.” A driver whose violation of traffic laws and accident was caused by loss of consciousness due to a sudden medical emergency may not be held legally negligent.

The “Sudden Medical Emergency” Defense

This defense was upheld in a 2003 Ohio Supreme Court case. Nino Gobbo suffered a fatal heart attack while driving on a busy street. Gobbo’s runaway car caused a multi-car crash and resulted in two deaths and injury to others. At trial, the jury determined that Gobbo violated traffic laws, but also that he had suffered an unforeseeable heart attack. Gobbo’s Estate was held not liable based on the sudden medical emergency defense established by a 1956 Ohio Supreme Court case.

The injured parties appealed, arguing that it was not fair that they should bear the brunt of the loss, when they were completely without fault. They claimed that a determination that Gobbo was not negligent precluded recovery from their own insurance companies for their losses. They urged the Court to overrule the precedent. The Ohio Supreme Court held, however, that the Gobbo Estate had established the defense and the defense is still valid law in Ohio. Neither Gobbo’s Estate nor his insurance company could be held liable for the damages.

Comparative Negligence

Although some states still recognize the doctrine of “contributory negligence,” which may eliminate or drastically reduce any recovery by an injured party who is also negligent (and thus “contributed” to their own injury), most states have adopted the doctrine of “comparative negligence.” Under the theory of comparative negligence, the negligence and fault of one driver for an accident, even if violating a traffic law, does not necessarily mean that driver is exclusively at fault for the accident. The other driver(s) may have been able to avoid the accident or increased its severity by their actions or inaction. For example, one driver’s excessive speed may have been a cause of an accident, but another driver’s changing lanes, cutting off the first driver, may also have been a cause.

Under the comparative negligence doctrine, the negligence of all of those involved in the accident is “compared.” An injured driver who is determined to have been less than 50% at fault for the accident may still recover damages, although recovery may be reduced based on the amount of his or her fault for the accident. An injured driver determined to be more than 50% at fault for the accident may end up recovering nothing.

For example, if there is a four car accident and Driver A is determined to have been 20% at fault, and the other three drivers are collectively determined to have been 80% at fault, Driver A should be able to recover 80% of proven losses resulting from the accident.

Conclusion

Many people assume that drivers in an accident who are concurrently violating traffic laws (perhaps receiving a traffic citation) will automatically be deemed at fault and will be liable for any damages. As mentioned previously, such drivers may be deemed negligent per se, but will not necessarily have to pay all or even a part of the damages. There are defenses available and the doctrine of comparative negligence may reduce or even eliminate such driver’s liability. The existence and details of such defenses vary greatly among states; it is highly advisable to consult with an attorney in your jurisdiction for more information.

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