Car accident lawsuits are based in negligence. To succeed in a negligence action, the plaintiff’s lawyer must prove the following four factors:
- The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care
- The defendant breached that duty of care
- The defendant’s breach was the proximate cause of the accident
- The plaintiff suffered injury from the accident (physical or financial)
Negligence is a broad concept that is the basis of many kinds of lawsuits. To learn more about negligence in general, please see Negligence Articles. Below, we will discuss negligence as it relates to car accidents, starting with each of the four elements.
Anyone who operates a motor vehicle owes a duty to do so with ordinary care, to refrain from putting others in danger. “Ordinary care” and “reasonable person” are the two phrases to keep in mind. Ordinary care describes a standard of conduct that aligns with the way a reasonable person would consider a reasonable way to act.
For a defendant driver to breach their duty to the plaintiff, they would have to act without ordinary care, in a way a reasonable person would think might put others in danger.
In order for the defendant to be liable, the defendant’s breach must have proximately caused a wreck. Proximate cause requires cause in fact and foreseeability. There is cause in fact only if without the defendant’s breach, the collision would not have occurred. There is foreseeability if a reasonable person in the defendant’s shoes could have reasonably predicted similar dangerous consequences to the defendant’s breach.
To have a successful negligence lawsuit, the plaintiff must be able to show they suffered an injury, whether physical, financial, or property damage.
What duties exist?
Legal duties, or obligations, can be imposed by common law or statute. Common law duties are rules that are determined by the courts through case law. Statutory duties are required by laws that have been passed.
Common Law Duties
The conduct of a reasonable person depends on the circumstances of each case. There are some areas of conduct in which Texas courts have recognized a duty. For example, there is a common-law duty to exercise reasonable care when stopping or slowing a vehicle. There are also recognized duties to secure any cargo, maintain enough fuel, and to refrain from driving with defective equipment.
The Texas statutes that impose duties on drivers are found in a few different places. The Uniform Act Regulating Traffic on Highways, codified in the Texas Transportation Code Section 541, is the source of most Texas laws regarding drivers and motor vehicles. The Texas Motor Vehicle Safety Responsibility Act lays out insurance requirements relating to motor vehicles. Offenses like driving while intoxicated are found in the Penal Code.
Ordinary Care Statutes
“Ordinary care” statutes define the conduct of a reasonable person in a certain situation. Some statutes simply state that ordinary care, or reasonableness, is required in a given situation. This is the same as the common-law standard. For example, speeding statutes specify use of ordinary care by stating the speed must be reasonable under the circumstances:
- (a) An operator may not drive at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the circumstances then existing .
If a driver is driving above the speed limit, that can be used as evidence that their speed is not reasonable, but there is no hard rule that to drive a certain number of miles over a posted speed limit is automatically negligent. With ordinary care statutes, each situation must be evaluated individually to determine if the driver was negligent.
Negligence Per Se Statutes
Other statutes lay out specific actions that are required or forbidden in a situation. This type of statute allows for “negligence per se,” which means an act is automatically considered negligent if it violates the conduct specified by the statute. The statute for drag racing, for instance, makes any participation negligence per se:
A person may not participate in any manner in:
- a race;
- a vehicle speed competition or contest;
- a drag race or acceleration contest;
- a test of physical endurance of the operator of a vehicle; or
- in connection with a drag race, an exhibition of vehicle speed or acceleration or to make a vehicle speed record .
If a person participates in any of the above actions, they are negligent per se and responsible for any injury they cause that is of the type the statute is designed to prevent, and to the class of persons the statute is designed to protect. For the injured party to recover in a negligence per se violation, they must prove the violation was the proximate cause of their injury. It’s important to note that it’s possible to comply with a statute but still breach a common-law duty, like when weather conditions require drivers to be even more careful than a statute specifies.
Drivers have a duty to exercise due care to avoid hitting pedestrians, regardless of right-of-way. Pedestrians also owe a duty of care to drivers. Statutes in the Transportation Code require pedestrians to obey signals at intersections and yield right-of-way to all vehicles when crossing without a crosswalk, or they are negligent per se. Pedestrians also have a duty to keep a proper lookout for their own safety, regardless of whether they have the right-of-way. For example, in the 1962 case Plata v. Gohman, a pedestrian was found negligent for failing to keep a proper lookout when he was struck from behind at night, while wearing dark clothing and walking in the street, even though there was room to walk on the side of the street . The court determined the headlights of the approaching car must have been visible to the pedestrian, and still he did not take any measures to avoid being hit.
Owner’s Liability when someone else was driving
In some cases, the owner of a vehicle can be held liable for an accident even when someone else was driving. This can happen in 3 different circumstances.
- Vicarious Liability - The first has to do with vicarious liability (see full article here). Under vicarious liability, an owner can be held responsible for a car wreck caused by the driver’s negligence when the driver is the owner’s employee, and the accident occurred while the driver was in the course and scope of their employment.
- Negligent Entrustment – An owner can be held liable when they entrust their vehicle to someone they knew, or should have known, to be a reckless, incapable, or unlicensed driver. The injured party’s lawyer must show that the driver’s negligence was the proximate cause of the accident, and that the owner knew of should have known that the driver was unfit to drive. This can be based on driving history or the driver’s current state. When the driver is unfit because they are in a state of intoxication or incapacity, courts consider this state to be apparent to the owner. In the 1970 case Revisore v. West, a car-owner was found liable when he had been drinking with the teenage driver before loaning the driver his car, and witnesses to the wreck described the driver as intoxicated . The court determined the driver’s state of intoxication should have been apparent to the owner, and found him liable for negligent entrustment. Sometimes an owner can even be held responsible for unauthorized use, if that use was foreseeable.
- Defective Vehicle – An owner can also be held liable for knowingly lending out a defective vehicle. Before lending it out, the owner of a vehicle is required to reasonably inspect the car for defects. If an owner lends out a car with defects they either knew of or should have known of, they are responsible for any injuries proximately caused by those defects.
There are several defenses that a defendant can assert when sued for negligence involving a motor vehicle. As with all negligence cases, some defenses involve disproving an element of the plaintiff’s case, or showing that the defendant was not in fact negligent. For a general overview of these types of defenses, please see Defenses to Negligence article.
Another type of defense involves asserting the negligence of the injured party. If the court finds the injured party’s negligence was also a cause of their injury, the court will reduce their damages by the percentage of their own responsibility. If the injured party was more than 50% responsible, they cannot recover damages at all. Please see Comparative Negligence article for further explanation.
In limited circumstances, passengers may be found contributorily negligent. Passengers in vehicles usually do not owe any duty. However, if the driver is clearly driving dangerously, like at very excessive speeds, the passenger may have a duty to object. A passenger can also be found contributorily negligent, or partially responsible, if they willingly enter a vehicle with a driver they know is intoxicated, or if the passenger discovers during the ride that the driver is intoxicated and does not exit the vehicle when given the opportunity .
The defendant can sometimes assert as a defense that the injured party failed to keep a proper lookout. Drivers and pedestrians all have a duty to keep a reasonable lookout for their own safety. While no one is expected to anticipate unlawful behavior, if a driver sees unlawful behavior they are required to react to it, if they have enough time. For a simple reaction like stepping on the brakes, three quarters of a second is generally considered to be enough time for a reasonable person to react. Also, drivers generally don’t have a duty to maintain a lookout behind them. But some actions, like stopping or slowing down suddenly, give rise to a duty for the driver to look behind them to make sure they can complete the action safely.
Along the same lines, a defendant can assert the defense that the injured party failed to take evasive action. Even if the injured party kept a proper lookout, they might still be found contributorily negligent for failure to take an evasive action. If a reasonable person would have taken action to avoid a collision, like turn the car or hit the brakes, then the injured party may be found partially responsible.
In 2015, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in Nabors Well Services v. Romero that evidence of an injured party’s failure to use a seat belt is admissible in court, when relevant to show comparative negligence . The case involved a collision with a truck that caused some of an SUV’s passengers to be ejected. There was varying evidence regarding which passengers were wearing seatbelts and which passengers were ejected. The Court determined that the rule of the previous 40 years was out-of-date, and declared evidence of seat belt non-use admissible to show comparative negligence.
- ^ Transp. C. Section 545.351(a).
- ^ Transp. C. Section 545.420.
- ^ Plata v. Gohman, 359 S.W.2d 163-165 (Tex. Civ. App. –San Antonio 1962, writ ref’d n.r.e.).
- ^ Revisore v. West, 450 S.W.2d 361, 364 (Tex. Civ. App. –Houston [14th Dist.] 1970, no writ).
- ^ Combs v. Morrill, 470 S.W.2d 222, 224 (Tex. Civ. App. – San Antonio 1971, writ ref’d n.r.e.)
- ^ Nabors Well Servs. v. Romero, 456 S.W.3d 553, 563 (Tex. 2015).