How Is Fault Determined In A Car Accident?

On a high level, fault is easy to determine. Human error causes about 95 percent of the car crashes in Orange County. But a negligence case goes deeper than just general fault. In order for victim/plaintiffs to obtain fair compensation for their damages, they must establish that a tortfeasor (negligent driver) was entirely responsible, or at least mostly responsible, for the crash.

This compensation normally includes money for both economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, like emotional distress. In some cases, additional punitive damages are available. There must be clear and convincing evidence that the tortfeasor ignored a known risk and recklessly endanger the safety and/or property of other people.

Citations Issued at the Scene

If the reporting officer gives one driver a ticket, that act basically constitutes a presumption of negligence. Other evidence from the scene, or perhaps the picture that an accident reconstructionist draws, may point to a different conclusion. However, in many cases, this presumption is difficult to overcome.

California has a very strong negligence per se rule. In most cases, if a tortfeasor receives a citation at the scene, that individual is liable for damages as a matter of law. This doctrine applies if all the following elements are present:

  • Safety Law Violation: At the crash scene, first responders often issue citations for things like speeding or failure to maintain a proper lookout. In some cases, traffic infractions like these only constitute an additional presumption of negligence. But in most cases, they are absolute proof of negligence unless the tortfeasor had a valid excuse.
  • Protected Class: The victim must be among the people which the law was designed to protect. This element is present in most cases. The Vehicle Code was designed to protect anyone on the road, including motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, and bystanders.
  • Substantial Cause: The legal infraction need not be the wreck’s sole Instead, it need only be a substantial cause. Even if other factors contributed to the wreck, the negligence per se rule may still apply.

If the tortfeasor received multiple citations, there is a very strong possibility of punitive damages. It’s one thing to speed; it’s quite another to speed through a red light. The same thing may apply if the citation points to behavioral negligence. For example, people who knowingly operate vehicles without valid insurance arguably represent a high risk to public safety.

How Do Witnesses Help Determine Fault in Orange County?

Despite persistent questions about the reliability of such evidence, eyewitnesses are usually the largest component in a fault determination. These credibility issues are easier to deal with in civil court because of the lower burden of proof. In criminal court, any credibility question may invalidate a witness’ testimony. But in a negligence case, that’s simply not true.

Nevertheless, it’s important to evaluate the credibility of the witnesses based on several factors. The jury will almost certainly go through this process. Some of these factors include:

  • Interest in the Case: All witnesses are “interested” witnesses to some extent or they would not have agreed to testify. But the statements of an unconnected bystander almost always carry more weight with the jury than a party’s statements. THat’s not because the victim or tortfeasor is lying but because they see things from their own perspectives.
  • Background: We all have skeletons in our closet. But sometimes these skeletons are relevant to the way we perceive facts and sometimes they are not. A good attorney knows the difference and uses it to attack adverse witnesses and defend friendly ones.
  • Perspective: One witness rarely sees the entire wreck from start to finish. Typically, an attorney must listen to several witnesses and piece their recollections together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Ultimately, the jury or other factfinder determines the credibility of witnesses. In other words, the jury also makes the ultimate determination of fault. Appeals courts almost never upset jury decisions in these matters, except in extreme cases.

Other Evidence In California Car Wreck Cases

Because of these credibility and reliability issues, it’s normally a mistake to base a fault determination entirely on witness statements. Moreover, the jury will probably expect electronic or other physical evidence in addition to witness testimony. Fortunately, such evidence is often available and it often contributes significantly to this process.

Most people do not know that their passenger car probably contains an Event Data Recorder. Just like a jet airplane’s “black box” collects mechanical information that crash investigators often use, the EDR captures and records statistics like:

  • Steering angle,
  • Acceleration rate,
  • Vehicle speed, and
  • Critical mechanical data.

Assuming the EDR is in good working order, it’s almost impossible to challenge the validity of this information in court. Moreover, the EDR is very specific. For example, a witness may say that a car was moving fast and turned at the last second. But the EDR data may reveal that the car was traveling 51.3mph and turned at an angle of 47.2 degrees exactly 0.6 seconds before impact.

There’s an old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. When it comes to fault determination, more pictures are available than ever before. Surveillance cameras are everywhere. There might be a red-light camera at the intersection and several security cameras which capture street views. The images these cameras provide are nothing like those grainy 1980s convenience store black-and-white videos. Modern images are in high definition and very easy for the jury to see.

Partner With Aggressive Lawyers

Fault determination is necessary to establish liability. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in Orange County, contact RMD Law. An attorney can connect victims with doctors, even if they have no money or insurance.

Aria Miran
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