The Various Forms of Car Accident Liability in New York State

This post will outline a bit of the actual legal reasoning and process behind car accident personal injury lawsuits, using some recent examples of media-reported accidents as case studies. Most people seem to understand that when someone who is driving negligently injures the person or property of another, they should pay (or their insurance company should). But this seemingly simple proposition actually has a great deal of law, worked out through both courts and legislatures over years, behind it.

crash3.jpgConsider this recent example, from the New York Post: a driver fleeing police during a high-speed chase slams into a pedestrian and nearly kills him. Most basically, the driver is almost certainly liable to the pedestrian under a theory of negligence. Why? Because we know two things: the driver was speeding, and the driver was fleeing from police. Both of these acts represent a breach in the so-called “duty of care” a vehicle driver owes a pedestrian. Think of the legal duty of care this way: a driver acting in concert with such a duty would be driving as a reasonable person would under the circumstances: at or under the speed limit, both hands on the wheel, paying close and careful attention to his or her surroundings and the police cruiser attempting to force the driver to stop. A breach of this duty – a failure to behave in this way – that leads to an injury, causes liability.

(This is a topic for another post, but it is not unheard of for police departments to get sued for negligently engaging in a vehicle chase. There certainly can exist conditions where an innocent bystander is injured because police officers refused to give up even when a chase became exceedingly dangerous to pedestrians.)

In a more tragic case, again from the Post, a Queens teenager swerved into oncoming traffic, resulting in an accident that killed his co-passenger. According to the Post, police believe speeding was a factor. While the negligence is not quite as clear cut in this example as in the previous, I bring this case up to highlight the fact that pedestrians are, from the point of view of the law, not the only possible plaintiff/victim’s in a personal injury suit. Willingly entering a vehicle does not mean automatically accepting the risk of injury from the driver’s negligence. Lawsuits like this most often come about from drunk driving accidents – a drunk driver is both criminally and civilly responsible for hurting his fellow passengers, and this is the case even if those passengers entered the car with the full knowledge of his drunkenness. It is not an “excuse” that the passenger chose to ride along. Negligence is negligence, and harm remains harm.

In future posts, we’ll use other recent examples of motor vehicle negligence to highlight a few other ways the law seeks to reimburse innocent victims civilly, and we’ll particularly take a look at the so-called “No Fault Law” that stands so prominently in the minds of many personal injury attorneys in this state. As always, if you think these factual scenarios could apply to you, contact our firm to sort through your options. Even a consultation can bring some clarity to a confusing legal scenario.

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