Car crashes seriously injure millions of Americans each year. Typically, health insurance companies refuse to pay these expenses, generally for liability reasons. An attorney can usually arrange for a deferred payment arrangement, so victims pay no money upfront. But eventually, these bills must be paid. And, that usually means a legal claim for damages.
Sometimes, state law sets the parameters for these claims. For example, if a legally-intoxicated tortfeasor (negligent driver) causes a car crash, the tortfeasor may be liable for damages as a matter of law.
But much more often, the damages claim involves simple negligence. Drowsy driving is a good example. Excessive fatigue causes about a quarter of the fatal car crashes in the United States. But in most states,drowsy driving is not against the law. Moreover, there is no Breathalyzer-type test for fatigue, so drowsiness is difficult to establish.
So, these claims rely on negligence. Civil laws have been around for thousands of years, but negligence law is a relatively recent innovation. So, the five elements of a negligence case are, in many ways, still evolving.
Most world religions teach moral responsibility. This Responsibility usually includes a duty to look out for the interests of other people. But a courthouse is not a synagogue, a church, or a mosque. So, such a duty was almost unheard of, until 1932’s Donoghue v. Stevenson.
In this case, a woman found a dead snail in the bottom of her beer bottle. Under the law at the time, victims would ordinarily sue manufacturers claiming breach of contract. But a friend gave the woman the offending beer bottle, so a contract action was not an option. So, she made the novel argument that Stevenson, the manufacturer, had a duty “to provide a system of working his business that was safe, and would not allow snails to get into his ginger beer bottles (including the said bottle).” The defendant retorted that no such duty existed, and at the time, he may have been right.
To resolve the dispute, the court essentially merged the concepts of moral and legal responsibility. The idea became known as the neighbor principle. According to the court:
You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbor. Who,then, in law, is my neighbor? The answer seems to be persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question.
One may agree or disagree with the court’s conclusion.Either way, the neighbor principle evolved into the duty of care. The same duty remains today, at least for the most part. In many jurisdictions, Uber drivers,truck drivers, bus drivers, and other commercial operators are common carriers who have a higher duty of care.
In one respect, a breach is any behavior that violates the tortfeasor’s legal duty. But the behavior must violate the standard of care and not be just a one-time lapse.
Distracted driving is a good example. Scientifically, distracted driving is an umbrellas term. It includes any behavior that causes:
- Manual distraction (taking one’s hand off the wheel),
- Visual distraction (taking one’s eyes off the road), or
- Cognitive distraction (taking one’s mind off driving).
Technically, changing the radio station involves all three types of distraction. But most people would not consider such behavior to be a breach of duty. Something like a long-term conversation on a handheld or hands-free cell phone, however, is a different story.
Cause in Fact
Typically, the jury decides what constitutes a brief lapse and what constitutes a breach of duty. Similarly, the jury also decides if there was a connection between the breach and the victim/plaintiff’s damages.
Lawyers usually call these element “but-for” causation, asin the injury would not have occurred “but for” the tortfeasor’s action or inaction.
Once again, the jury must draw a line. There’s an old quote that says “For want of a nail the shoe was lost; For want of a shoe the horse was lost; For want of a horse the battle was lost; For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost; All for the want of a horse-shoe nail.” So, according to that logic, the guy who messed up the horseshoe nail was responsible for the kingdom’s fall. But most people wouldn’t see it that way.
Instead, there must be a more direct connection between thebreach and the damages. One might be able to blame someone in the battle for the loss of the kingdom, but that’s about as far as it goes.
This legal term basically means foreseeability. The concept comes from 1928’s Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Company.This case reads more like a Three Stooges Film than a pillar of legal negligence. As a train pulled away from theplatform, two railway porters helped an overweight passenger into the train car. One pushed him from behind while the other pulled from in front. The man dropped a package of fireworks. The fireworks exploded, causing a large scale to topple onto poor Mrs. Palsgraf, who was on the other side of the platform.The court concluded that although the rail porters were negligent, the injury was not foreseeable.
Assume that a tortfeasor suddenly veers off the road and hits a pedestrian. That’s certainly a foreseeable result of operating a car.But what if a surgeon makes a medical mistake while operating on the victim?The negligent driver could not have foreseen that event, so liability for those medical negligence damages does not attach.
In some cases, the zone of danger expands to other injuries.That’s usually true if parents are in a vehicle when their children are seriously injured. The parents may be entitled to compensation as bystanders.
The final element of negligence is usually a straightforward one. To recover compensation, the victim/plaintiff must normally sustain a physical injury. That could be either a bodily trauma injury or property damage.
That’s not true in all cases. Many states recognize the negligent infliction of emotional distress doctrine. In some jurisdictions, near-miss car crash may be actionable under this rule.