When you are seeking money damages for injuries, medical bills, lost wages and other costs associated with a car accident you and your lawyer will need to document two things:
We will discuss damages elsewhere on this site – here’s what you need to know about liability.
Liability refers to fault – in other words, did the other driver’s negligent action result in damage to your vehicle and injury to your body? If negligence is not an issue (i.e., the other driver ran a red light and crashed into your vehicle), then the other driver’s insurance company may very well stipulate (agree to) as to liability, meaning that the only issue will be your damages.
Usually the issue of negligence is either not an issue (there is no reasonable dispute about the other driver’s negligent conduct) or questions about negligence are incorporated into a case settlement that resolves all issues. If the other driver’s insurance company insists that you were negligent and thus not entitled to any damages, our option would be to litigate the negligence issue before a judge or jury.
Legally negligence claims are called tort claims, and an entire body of law has arisen around issues that arise in negligence actions. For example, in order for you to prevail on the negligence issue, you must show that the other driver’s actions were both a cause in fact and the proximate cause of your damages. Here’s an example: suppose that your neighbor from down the street honks his horn repeatedly to scare away a cat, and because you looked up when you heard the horn, you crashed into a mailbox and hurt your back. Clearly there is a relationship between the honking of the horn and your accident but it would be very difficult to prove that the honking of the horn was the direct and proximate cause of your accident. All drivers should expect to hear horns without taking their eyes from the road, so in this case, your failure to keep your eyes on the road would be more of a direct (proximate) cause of your damages.
In the real world, the direct cause of an accident is usually fairly obvious (i.e., the running of a red light, failure to maintain proper distance from another vehicle) but sometimes legal issues do arise.
When Both Drivers are at Fault
What happens when both you and the other driver are partially at fault in causing the accident? or what happens if the evidence is unclear?
Under Georgia law, you must be able to prove that you were less than 50% negligent in causing the accident. This is called Georgia’s modified comparative negligence law. If you were 51% negligent, you cannot recover any damages, regardless of how seriously you were hurt.
Civil Negligence vs. Criminal Negligence (Who Got the Ticket?)
When the police officer arrives at the scene of your accident, he will most likely talk to you, the other driver, and any witnesses who may be there. Depending on his conclusions, the officer will likely issue a ticket to you, to the other driver or both of you.
The ticket (or traffic citation) represents a charge that someone has violated a state law. While it is preferable that the other driver gets the ticket, remember that the traffic court may dismiss charges. If your case ends up in court, the question of who got the ticket may be completely irrelevant since there will likely be other evidence (accident reconstruction reports, photographs of skid marks, witness testimony) that serve as better evidence regarding negligence.
Traffic tickets are technically criminal offenses, and to be found criminally liable, the evidence of your liability must be beyond a reasonable doubt (a very degree of certainty). Negligence claims for money damages, by contrast, are civil claims, and the standard of proof for civil liability is preponderance of the evidence (51% of certainty).
You should not assume that the question of negligence has been settled because the other driver got the ticket. Police officers almost always arrive after the fact and their investigations are usually very brief. This is why you should use your camera phone to take as many photos as you can at the accident scene, and write down the names and phone numbers of witnesses. This is why we will photograph the scene, photograph the vehicles, and gather any other evidence we can about negligence as soon as we can after your accident.
What if You Got the Ticket
As discussed above, the police officer’s decision to issue you a ticket represents an accusation only. No traffic court judge has ruled on the charges and the police officer’s conclusions may be tainted if the vehicles have been moved or if you were injured and unable to give your side of the story.
As you might expect, the other driver’s insurance company will argue that you are more than 50% negligent because you got the ticket. As discussed above, this is nonsense. However, your case will be helped if we can get the traffic citation dismissed at traffic court – this is why you should not wait to hire a lawyer, especially if you got the ticket.
The Bottom Line on Negligence
If the evidence associated with your accident demonstrates that the other driver was at fault and caused the accident, your case will have a higher settlement value than would be the case if negligence is at issue. Do not assume that the other driver’s insurance company will always back down regarding the negligence issue. The sooner we can conduct our own investigation, take photographs, talk to witnesses and search for physical evidence the better.