Pursuing A Lawsuit After A Car Accident

February 16, 2020

by Donaldson & Weston

Car accidents can happen without warning, and you may not have a clear understanding of what caused a crash at the time. Once you have received any needed medical attention, you should make sure to gather evidence to help show what happened in the moments leading up to the accident. While most car crashes result from some form of driver error, there may be other parties at fault that may not be immediately obvious. If you can bring more defendants into your claim, you may have a better opportunity to get full compensation for your injuries and costs.

The best way to protect your rights is to schedule a free consultation with a car accident lawyer. A seasoned attorney can review the facts of your case, answer your questions, and provide sound legal guidance on whom to sue after an auto accident in West Palm Beach.

Suing a Driver

The first place to look for liability is one or more of the drivers involved in a crash. A driver whose unsafe actions caused the accident can be held liable under a theory of ordinary negligence. Ordinary negligence simply means that they failed to take the precautions that a reasonable person would have made behind the wheel. In chain reaction cases involving several vehicles, multiple drivers may be at fault. Bringing all of the appropriate drivers into the situation can be critical as an individual policy may not be enough to cover catastrophic injuries for multiple victims.

Suing a Vehicle Owner

Let's say the owner of a car allowed someone they should not have trusted to drive their vehicle. If that person causes an accident, you may be able to sue the owner of the car under a theory of negligent entrustment. This situation is often relevant in teen driver accident cases when the teenager who caused the crash was driving a parent's car. The key would be showing that the owner of the car should have known that the driver was unsafe. Negligent entrustment generally does not apply in cases involving a stolen vehicle. In this situation, the owner of the car probably could not have expected that individual to be driving their vehicle.

Suing the Employer of a Driver

The employer of a driver at fault for an accident while on the job could be sued for alleged vicarious liability. This situation applies regardless of whether the employer acted negligently. For example, if you were hit by a delivery driver who ran a red light, you could sue their employer as long as the driver was not an independent contractor.

In some cases, an employer's negligence may have contributed to an accident. You may be able to sue the employer under a theory of negligent supervision, negligent hiring, or negligent training, among others. Perhaps they hired a driver with a record of DUIs, or maybe they imposed policies that created incentives for drivers to speed or drive recklessly. In other situations, the employer may have failed to inspect or maintain a vehicle properly. Any of these theories would require proving the elements of negligence against the employer directly.

Suing Car Manufacturers

Although it is less common than driver error, a defective vehicle or car part can play a role in a car accident. If a tire blows out, the brakes malfunction or an airbag fails to deploy; for example, you might have a product liability claim against the manufacturer or other entities in the chain of distribution. A product liability claim is based on strict liability rather than negligence, which means it is not necessary to prove that the defendant failed to use reasonable care. Showing that the vehicle or component was defective and caused the accident can help establish accountability.

Suing Government Entities and Contractors

Poor road conditions may have caused or contributed to an accident. When this happens, you may be able to sue a government entity that was responsible for maintaining the road or a construction company that repaired it negligently. Claims against the government usually must comply with strict procedural requirements. It is essential to pursue these claims within a shorter time window than ordinary personal injury claims. Damages caps also may apply to limit the government's exposure.

Suing Private Property Owners

In rare cases, an accident may result from a property owner failing to keep their property in a safe condition. For example, a bush or tree may grow too close to a road, preventing a driver from seeing other vehicles or a stop sign. If your accident seems to involve this factor, you can bring a premises liability claim against the property owner. You would need to prove that the condition was hazardous and that the property owner knew or should have known about it.

Working with a Car Accident Lawyer

You might be able to handle an insurance claim on your own if a car accident was relatively minor, resulting in only property damage and minimal injuries. However, if you are suffering from catastrophic injuries after a severe accident, you may have a lot at stake in terms of medical bills, lost income, and other damages. The insurance company also may put more resources into contesting all or part of the claim. In these situations, or in cases in which liability is unclear, you may benefit significantly from hiring a car accident lawyer.

Attorneys who handle car accident cases and other personal injury cases usually work on a contingency fee basis. In this situation, a lawyer will take their fee from any eventual settlement or judgment that you receive, often in a percentage of around 30-33%. If they do not get money for you, you usually do not need to pay the attorney anything. There are other costs associated with filing a claim, however, and you will want to determine who will cover those costs when you retain an attorney.

How an Attorney Can Help

One of the main tasks that your attorney can handle for you is communicating with insurance companies and adverse parties in your case. This scenario can help take the stress out of the process and make sure that an insurance adjuster does not take advantage of you. Negotiating a settlement in a car accident case is a complex and often hard-fought process. Still, an attorney may understand better than the victim how much the case is worth and how to get the insurer to payout. Also, complexities can arise in some claims involving lien holders. These are other insurers that provided benefits to an accident victim before the auto insurer offers them, which gives these insurers a lien on the claim. An attorney can help you try to reduce the lien so that you retain as much of the settlement or judgment as possible.

Another critical area in which an attorney can help is gathering evidence to support your claim. You will need to collect evidence regarding both liability (who caused the accident) and damages (your losses from the accident). An attorney can retain experts to investigate the accident, and they can discuss the events with police officers and witnesses. They can also help obtain evidence from medical providers to establish the scope and extent of your injuries. In some cases, an attorney might retain medical experts to explain the effect of your injuries.

Choosing a Car Accident Lawyer

When you are looking for a car accident attorney, you should make sure to choose someone who relates well to you. They also should have experience handling cases similar to yours. Trial experience can be an essential asset, since insurers may take a claim more seriously if they know that a victim's attorney is willing to go to trial. You may also want to make sure that your attorney actually will be handling your case, rather than passing the work to paralegals or other assistants.

Getting a Case Evaluation

In your initial meeting with an attorney, you will describe the facts of the accident and your injuries. The attorney or assistant may ask about specific vital issues before deciding whether to take the case, such as your insurance coverage and any previous communications with insurance adjusters and others about the accident. The attorney may ask you to bring certain documents to the meeting so that they can better understand your case. These may include medical bills, the police report of the accident, and correspondence with insurers, among other things. You should be aware that the attorney-client privilege will protect the contents of this conversation, so you should be as candid with the attorney as possible. The attorney-client privilege will help both sides determine the value of your case and whether it makes sense to move forward together.

Defenses in Car Accident Cases

If someone else sues you following a car accident, you may be able to attack their ability to prove the elements of their claim, such as causation. Also, there may be other defense strategies that you can use to limit or avoid liability. If you have auto insurance, your insurer probably will investigate the case from your perspective and devise litigation strategies on your behalf. You may still find it helpful to understand how these arguments work, whether you are a defendant trying to use them or a plaintiff seeking to fight back against them.

In many cases, more than one driver was responsible for an accident. Perhaps one driver failed to yield the right of way, while the other driver was speeding. Or maybe one driver was distracted by their cell phone, while the other driver was tailgating. There are three basic ways to address these types of scenarios to raise the issue of the plaintiff's negligence.

Pure Comparative Negligence

The concept behind comparative negligence is that a victim who was partly at fault for causing an accident should be held partly responsible for the resulting injuries and costs. States that follow a pure comparative negligence model, such as Florida, determine how much each party was at fault for the accident in percentages and allocate damages accordingly. For example, if each driver was 50% at fault for a crash, each of them could receive compensation for half of their injuries from the other. Even if a plaintiff was more at fault than the defendant, they could receive a damages award proportionate to the defendant's failure.

Showing comparative negligence essentially means proving the elements of a negligence claim against the plaintiff. In this situation, it says that they had a duty to use a certain level of care, they failed to meet that standard, and this caused the accident. Just as a plaintiff will need to investigate an accident thoroughly to establish the defendant's fault, a defendant will need to undertake a thorough investigation to prove comparative fault by the plaintiff.

Modified Comparative Negligence

Some states use a modified form of comparative negligence, which can be friendlier to some defendants. The key to modified comparative negligence is that it establishes a cutoff percentage of fault. If the failure of the plaintiff is as at or above that percentage, they cannot receive any damages. This percentage is usually around 50% or 51%. The idea is that a defendant should not need to pay money to someone who was just as much at fault or more at fault for the accident than they were.

If the plaintiff's percentage of fault is to be below the cutoff, a modified comparative negligence system works identically to pure comparative negligence.

Contributory Negligence

Contributory negligence is a very defendant-friendly rule that applies in only four states, Florida, not being one of them. Under this rule, a car accident plaintiff cannot recover any damages at all if they bore any share of the fault for an accident. Thus, even if the defendant was 95% at fault and the plaintiff was 5% at fault, the plaintiff gets nothing. Since establishing contributory negligence is a complete shield against liability, defendants and insurers in these states try to raise this argument whenever possible. If you are bringing a car accident claim in a contributory negligence state, and the fault is not entirely obvious, consult an experienced attorney.

Procedural Defenses

If a comparative or contributory negligence argument does not apply, a defendant or their insurer may try to get a case dismissed on procedural grounds. These are separate from the actual merits of the case. Many procedural arguments involve the statute of limitations, which is a state-imposed deadline for filing a personal injury case. A claim will almost certainly be dismissed if a plaintiff does not comply with this deadline. A defendant or insurer also may argue that a complaint fails to state a claim or lacks some technical element that is required. Depending on the situation, a court may or may not allow a plaintiff to amend a complaint.

To avoid these complications and setbacks, a plaintiff should make sure to comply with any procedural rules, no matter how trivial they seem. If they are unsure about whether a particular rule applies, they should not hesitate to consult an attorney who is familiar with this area of law.

Schedule a Free Case Review with a Car Accident Lawyer in West Palm Beach

To discuss your case with a personal injury attorney in West Palm Beach, contact Donaldson & Weston. Our lawyers offer free consultations and accept car accident claims on a contingency fee basis. Call our office at 561-299-3999 or send us a message on our Contact Page to set up a case evaluation.