Automobile lawsuit : how to defend it?

Motor vehicle accident claims and automobile lawsuit cases account for about 52% of the total personal injury lawsuits. Of that, approximately 39% of the verdicts are passed in favor of the defendant. That is to say, the defendants are discharged of all the liabilities with respect to the compensation amount as may be pleaded by a plaintiff. It intrigues us to understand the auto accident lawsuits from the perspective of a defendant and the possible defenses available to a defendant.

At first glance, the person behind the steering wheel, other than the victim, is believed to be responsible for the mishap and the consequent damage incurred to such victim. Little is known that there always exists a possibility of an alternative approach to a given situation which may eventually turn out to be a game changer.

Whether it is an at-fault insurance state?

Before proceeding with the determination of the possible consequences of a automobile accident and the possible defenses for the corresponding automobile lawsuit, it is very crucial to determine, at the first instance, whether the state where accident has occurred is an at-fault insurance state.

As mentioned in this article explaining the US law, the states in the United States mandate a minimum level of liability insurance to safeguard the automobile owners from the unforeseen conditions. While majority of the states have adopted at-fault insurance laws, there are a few such as Pennsylvania, Kansas and Massachusetts that have adopted no-fault insurance laws.

In a pure no-fault system, the injured is compensated by its insurance company for the minor injuries sustained as consequence of the auto accident, regardless of the person at fault. For this reason, such states obligate the inclusion of personal injury protection (PIP) coverage in the automobile insurance policies. The victim is not bestowed upon the right to seek compensation from the at-fault (negligent) driver unless the injuries are severe or complies with certain pre-requisites, for example rear-end collisions or left-turn accidents. Therefore, the automobile claims are generally resolved outside the court and rarely does an at-fault driver need to defend personal injury lawsuit arising out of auto accidents in such states.

On the contrary, in an at-fault state, a victim-plaintiff can claim compensation from the accused driver for the damages suffered due to the automobile accident. If the defendant driver is found to be negligent and at fault for the accident, thereby causing damage to the plaintiff, the latter shall be legally entitled to claim damages. That being said, if the defendant is not at fault, or not the only party at fault, for the accident, he shall be liable only to the extent of his negligence and no more.

What should be my first course of action if I hit another motor vehicle?

The foremost thing, one must understand, is that under the American justice system, every person is presumed to be innocent unless proven guilty. This principle has been extended to motor vehicle accident and automobile lawsuits as well.

Merely because a victim accuses a person of being at-fault for causing an accident does not by default make the latter guilty. Therefore, the accused-cum-defendant should in no circumstance admit, intentionally or inadvertently, at the time and place of the incident, or any time later, to anyone, that he was in fact at fault. Such an admission of fault will more often that not be used as a weapon by the injured claimant to establish his stance in the lawsuit. Consequently, his obligation shall be confined merely to the establishment of the nature and extent of damages. This happened in a case where the plaintiff had encountered two motor vehicle accidents separately and both the defendants admitted their fault. Merely by establishing the nature and extent of damages, he was awarded a compensation of USD 640,000. 

What is Admission of Fault in an automobile lawsuit?

In layman’s language, the admission of fault refers to the acceptance, by the accused, of the fault for which he has been alleged to have committed. It is vital that the defendant does not make any statement in the moment that may be construed as him taking the responsibility of the mishap. Such statements could be as basic as “I did not see the traffic signal go red” or “I was on call”. Despite the lack of any concrete evidence backing the plaintiff’s position, such an admission may irrevocably turn around the case against the defendant and in favor of the plaintiff. At the same time, it is indispensable for the alleged negligent driver to maintain his temperament and demeanor, instead of acting irrationally or in a fit of anger.

What if I have made such an admission?

If an at-fault driver has made statements, deliberately or unconsciously, that could be construed as admission of his fault, the attorney would attempt to shift the subject to optimize the automobile lawsuit. He will move argument from the fault of the defendant to the nature and amount of damage borne by the plaintiff on account of the defendant’s negligent conduct. This implies that mere admission by defendant is not sufficient to entitle the plaintiff to claim damages for all the injuries as may be claimed by him to be the consequence of such automobile accident. On the contrary, he has the burden to prove the nature and extent of damages and must be mandatorily established to be awarded any compensation.

In a 2018 car accident case in Florida, the defendant admitted that her faulty conduct had caused the collision and “some injury” to the plaintiff. For the purpose of compensation, the defendant’s attorney insisted on the plaintiff establishing the nature and extent of damages caused. On failure to do the same, the verdict was delivered in favor of the defendant despite the clear admission.

Should I settle the matter?

In a automobile lawsuit, generally speaking, the parties to a personal injury lawsuit endeavor to arrive at a settlement instead of pursuing it to trial. Likewise, in personal injury lawsuit arising from auto accidents, the primary objective of the parties is to settle the matter outside the court due to the exhausting and time-consuming trial process. Also, it is often the defendant’s insurance company paying on behalf of the defendant to the plaintiff and it is in its interest to resolve the dispute at the earliest.

At the same time, the claimant strives to obtain maximum compensation amount towards the losses suffered whereas the defendant or its insurance company strives to minimize it. Due to their conflicting interest, it may give rise to situations where one of the parties is not be satisfied with the settlement amount, thereby leading the matter to trial.

In such cases, you’ll need to find an auto accident lawyer to prepare your claim for trial. You can find the best attorneys for each state in our directory.

Whether a matter should be settled depends on the facts and circumstances of the case. The at-fault / negligent party shall assess the situation and his fault, as well as the footing of the victim / injured party in the case, before agreeing to any settlement or proceeding with trial.

What if the matter goes to trial?

Though the attorneys make every possible attempt to negotiate and settle the matter, the disagreement may escalate in the process and compel the parties to pursue a trial. In such circumstances, the liability of a defendant, to prove his case, shall arise only if the plaintiff successfully establishes the four preconditions, as under, to prove his case:

  • The defendant owed a reasonable duty of care to the persons on the road.
  • The negligent conduct of the defendant caused the breach of his duty.
  • The breach of duty is the proximate case of the injuries sustained by the plaintiff.
  • The nature and extent of damage suffered by the plaintiff.

What shall be the evidentiary standard to prove defendant’s negligence in the automobile accident?

Irrespective of whether the accused is actually at fault, the burden to prove the negligence of the defendant that ensued in the auto accident lies on the plaintiff. Mere allegations shall not suffice for holding the alleged at-fault driver liable in such an automobile lawsuit. The evidentiary standard required to prove the negligence of defendant is ‘preponderance of the evidence’, i.e., more likely than not to have occurred. The judge or jury shall deliver a judgment in the favor of the plaintiff provided he is able to establish that the defendant was at least 50% at fault in the causation of the auto accident. Prior to that, the defendant is given an opportunity to present his side of the case.

Defenses in case of institution of automobile lawsuit

Upon the successful establishment of the negligent conduct of the defendant, the onus to show that in fact he was not negligent in his act or that he was not the only party at fault shifts on him. Broadly speaking, depending on the facts and circumstances of the case, the defendant has been vested with several defenses:

  • Contributory / Comparative Negligence

Though the defendant may have been negligent in his conduct, there is a possibility that the plaintiff may also have acted negligently while handling the vehicle. It would be unjust to impose the burden on the defendant to pay to the plaintiff the compensation amount to the extent of the latter’s fault. Hence, to alleviate the liability to such extent, the defendant may invoke the doctrine of contributory or comparative negligence, as has been adopted by the state.

The Contributory Negligence principle, adopted by the states like Maryland and Virginia, discharges the defendant from all the liability if he successfully establishes that the plaintiff was at fault and had contributed, as less as 1%, to the alleged accident. In case of Pure Comparative Negligence, the liability of the defendant is diminished to the extent of the fault of the plaintiff whereas in case of Modified Comparative Negligence, the defendant shall be held liable to compensate the plaintiff to the extent of his fault provided the fault of the plaintiff is less than 50% or 51%, depending upon the principle adopted by the state where the alleged incident has taken place.

  • Pre-Existing Injury suffered or Prior Health Condition

There may be a possibility that the plaintiff was suffering from an injury or had a bad health condition prior to the alleged automobile accident, and the accident per se did not have any impact on the subsisting health condition of the plaintiff. In such circumstances, the defendant shall not be unjustly burdened to compensate the plaintiff. To avert this liability, the defendant can assert the defense of pre-existing injury or health condition against the plaintiff’s claims and mitigate his liability.

However, being a double-edged sword, this defense shall be used wisely by the defendant. Before concluding that the case in hand is fit to be proceeded with this line of defense, the defendant of the automobile lawsuit must scrutinize all the prior medical records of the plaintiff for the same defense may be applied by the plaintiff to showcase his exacerbated injury or health condition. Nevertheless, the defendant shall be liable only to the extent of plaintiff’s aggravated injury or health condition.

  • Other defendants at fault

There may be auto accidents where multiple parties, inclusive or exclusive of plaintiff, are at fault in its causation. In such an automobile lawsuit, the defendant in question shall not be compelled to bear the liability for the faulty conduct of others. Accordingly, his liability shall be limited to the extent of his negligence and not extend to that of others.

  • Barred by the statute of limitation

The statute of limitation enforced in each state specifies the time period during which the plaintiff shall file an auto accident claim before the court of law. There is no standard period of limitation. Varying from one state to another, it may be as less as 1 year from the date of the accident, like in the states of Louisiana and Tennessee, and as high as 6 years, like in the state of Maine.

Upon the expiry of the prescribed period, the defendant is at liberty to contend the lack of diligence exhibited by the plaintiff as a ground for dismissal of the case. For example, in the state of Michigan, where the statute of limitation restricts the institution of automobile accident lawsuit to 3 years from the date of injury, the plaintiff can resort to legal recourse for only until 31 May 2023 if he encountered an auto accident on 1 June 2020.

Upon failure to raise the defense of statute of limitation promptly in demurrer or answer to complaint, the defendant shall be barred subsequently from taking such a stance. Therefore, the defendant must have keen eye for the facts of the case, including the date of accident.

Conclusion

As an alleged at-fault driver, there are several technicalities surrounding an automobile claim. Post consultation with a personal injury attorney, the driver should decide the appropriate course of action to defend self in an automobile lawsuit and proceed accordingly.

By Anushri Maskara, Attorney

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