Can I Sue After a Car Accident?

Jason Hutzler November 9, 2022

Yes, you can sue after a car accident, but it isn’t always the best option. The vast majority of car accident claims are based on negligence. Suing only makes sense if another party’s negligence caused the accident. Even then, filing a lawsuit is the last step of a car accident claim process.

Going to trial is costly for both sides, so reaching a settlement agreement is the norm in car accident claims. However, this does not mean you should avoid contacting an experienced lawyer and be prepared to sue.

Understanding liability, negligence, and their relationship to your car accident claim and a potential lawsuit can be challenging, especially with so much misinformation out there. Always consult a lawyer after a car accident if you suffered injuries.

Until you get the opportunity to meet with a car accident attorney, the following information will help you understand negligence and its various types, how lawyers prove negligence in a car accident, and how negligence relates to the personal injury lawsuit process.

Defining Negligence

Most people equate negligence with neglect or carelessness when they think about the everyday meaning of negligence. However, negligence has a specific legal definition when you talk about it or think about it in the context of a car accident claim. The general legal definition of negligence refers to a party’s failure to meet a standard of care to the same level that a reasonable person would under the same or a similar situation.

Negligence typically refers to a defendant’s actions but can also refer to their inaction when a duty to act is present toward a plaintiff. Omissions or inactions are not as common in car accident claims, but they do exist. Another motorist who fails to yield, stop at a light, or follow other rules of the road has breached their duty towards other drivers with their inaction.

Similarly, car accidents that occur because of defective vehicle parts are often a result of auto manufacturers that fail to recall a vehicle with known issues or fail to use adequate quality control measures.

Types of Negligence in Car Accident Claims

Can I Sue After a Car Accident?

As mentioned above, negligence is the foundation for most car accident claims. However, lawyers and courts refer to different types of negligence based on the circumstances of a case. Here is a broad overview of the types of negligence that could be involved in your car accident lawsuit.

Ordinary Negligence

Most personal injury lawsuits, including those involving traffic accidents, are based on ordinary negligence. A person, a business, or another party harms someone physically, emotionally, and/or financially. Actions and omissions that qualify as ordinary negligence do not involve intentional harm or criminal activity. More simply, they are preventable accidents often underscored by carelessness. A motorist who caused a car accident because they were texting on their cell phone is an example of ordinary negligence.

Negligence Per Se

Negligence per se refers to behavior or actions that are fundamentally negligent. From a legal standpoint, any action that violates the law is negligence per se if it leads to death or injury. This type of negligence stands out compared to others because those who suffer harm do not need to prove negligence to win their personal injury claim. In legal practice, negligence per se is a form of strict liability, which means the defendant is strictly liable for damages without proof of negligence.

In the context of car accidents, drunk driving is among the most common scenarios in which a lawyer might choose to base a claim on negligence per se. Drunk driving is illegal. If a motorist has a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or higher, they have violated the law in Arizona and every other state.

If the drunk driver causes injuries or fatalities in a car accident, the plaintiff’s lawyer can argue he was negligent per se. In this case, the lawyer only needs to prove the drunk driver caused the crash instead of proving negligence.

Vicarious Liability

The notion of vicarious liability falls under the umbrella of negligence. Ordinary negligence and negligence per se could lead to vicarious liability. However, the defining characteristic of vicarious liability is the party who is negligent. Vicarious liability refers to the responsibility a defendant holds based on someone else’s negligent actions or omissions. Two distinctive situations where vicarious liability could apply in a car accident include accidents with a company vehicle and drunk driving.

Negligent drivers who are operating a company vehicle open their employers up to liability if they cause an accident. Some confusion might exist based on whether the driver was “on the clock” when they were behind the wheel, making it crucial for a victim to consult with an attorney in this situation.

In the case of drunk driving, vicarious liability applies if a lawyer advises bringing a dram shop claim against the business that served the drunk driver alcohol. Arizona businesses that serve obviously intoxicated patrons or knowingly serve alcohol to a minor are vicariously liable if one gets behind the wheel drunk and causes an accident and injuries.

Gross Negligence

You can think of gross negligence as the most extreme version of ordinary negligence. Gross negligence refers to behavior and actions that show a reckless disregard for the safety and well-being of others; it goes far beyond accidental and careless behaviors. Gross negligence is so appalling that it’s practically a purposeful violation of someone else’s right to safety. In many cases, gross negligence also involves criminal activity, so a lawyer might argue negligence per se in a lawsuit.

The law requires a plaintiff to declare gross negligence to seek punitive damages in a personal injury lawsuit. Punitive damages are rare, but courts sometimes award them to deter future gross negligence and punish the defendant for their behavior. Car accident claims and other personal injury claims that involve gross negligence typically have a higher value than others because of punitive damages.

Examples of car accident scenarios that might warrant a lawyer to argue gross negligence include:

  • Drunk driving
  • A reckless driver who speeds through an area with heavy foot traffic
  • Attempted vehicular manslaughter
  • Excessive speeding, especially in construction zones

These are only a few examples. If you have suffered injuries in a car accident, it’s best to let an experienced car accident lawyer review your case and advise you on whether your claim falls under the category of gross negligence.

Proving Negligence in Car Accident Lawsuits

Above, we mentioned some scenarios where plaintiffs do not have to prove negligence to win their car accident claim. However, plaintiffs must prove negligence the majority of the time. Meeting with a lawyer after a car accident involves evaluating your case to see if you are eligible for compensation. Specifically, do you have a viable car accident injury claim? The answer to that question hinges on whether your lawyer believes that your claim contains all four elements of negligence.

Here is an overview of each element of negligence you must prove—with the help of your attorney—if you want to sue after a car accident:

Duty of Care

A defendant must have a duty of care towards the plaintiff to prove negligence. In car accident claims, establishing this duty of care is simple, especially when the accident results from another motorist and not a defective vehicle. All drivers have a duty of care towards others who share the road, including other motorists in trucks, cars, and on motorcycles, cyclists, and pedestrians. Drivers must follow the rules of the road and operate their vehicles in a safe manner.

Breach of Duty

Once a plaintiff’s lawyer proves a duty of care existed between the defendant and the plaintiff, they must prove the defendant breached their duty. Breaches of duty are fairly obvious in most car accident claims. Drunk driving, drugged driving, texting and driving, excessive speeding, and other forms of reckless or aggressive driving constitute a breach of duty towards those who share the road.

However, determining a breach of duty can be more challenging in some situations. This typically is the case when a third party is involved in a car accident claim, as in the examples above about vicarious liability with employee vehicles and dram shop claims. Also, multi-car crashes and pile-ups can make it difficult to determine where the breach of duty occurred. Sometimes more than one driver’s negligence contributed to the accident and injuries.

Causation

Defendants and their lawyers contest causation most often in car accident claims. Proving negligence means you must prove that the defendant’s breach of duty led to the car crash and your injuries. Establishing a causal connection relies on evidence, which often goes far beyond a simple police report.

Fortunately, traffic accident claims are often less complex than other personal injury cases. Even when the defendant fights causation, lawyers can rely on expert opinions from accident reconstruction specialists to make their case.

Damages

The final element of negligence that must exist for a car accident claim is harm or loss. A plaintiff must suffer some economic and/or noneconomic loss that constitutes damages for a viable accident injury claim. Fender benders typically are not grounds for a lawsuit. The time and money to pursue the claim cost more than the compensation someone might receive.

Vehicle damage and injuries happen in many car crashes, making it easy to establish loss. However, damages also include mental trauma and financial stress. Medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, and reduced quality of life are examples of damages that emerge from a car accident and injuries.

To Sue, or Not to Sue. That Is the Question

A few key things happen for a car accident victim in the hours and days immediately after a car accident. Most importantly, a car accident victim has received emergency medical treatment and may or may not remain in the hospital. And, you and the other parties involved have reported the accident to the at-fault driver’s insurance company. They will investigate the accident and eventually contact you for a statement if they have not done so already.

At this point, it’s in your best interest to consult with a lawyer and let them handle communications. Initially, your lawyer will negotiate with the defendant and their auto insurance provider to reach a settlement agreement. This can take weeks or months, depending on the situation. It’s ideal for both parties to settle and avoid costly litigation, but sometimes your lawyer will have to file a lawsuit and might even have to fight for you in court.

Situations when lawyers often advise car accident victims to sue include:

  • Catastrophic injuries. If you suffered permanent injuries that prevent you from working, the payout for your claim would likely be significantly higher than a settlement. The insurance company will fight even harder to avoid a large payout, so it’s common for car accident victims to formally file a lawsuit and forego negotiations.
  • Liability disputes. The insurance company denies all or most financial liability for their policyholder, so they will not come to the table to negotiate, or they will only agree to pay a small settlement amount that doesn’t come close to compensating a victim for their losses.
  • Low policy limit. An insurance company will not pay more than the coverage limit of the auto insurance policy that applies to the claim. If damages total more than the policy limit, the only way to receive additional compensation is to bring a lawsuit directly against the driver or other party responsible for the car accident.
  • Insurance bad faith. Auto insurance providers legally have to decide a claim in a timely manner and act in good faith towards a claimant. If the insurance company attempts to play games like repeated claims denials for questionable reasons, downplay legitimate injuries, and more, your attorney will likely recommend bringing a lawsuit against the insurance company for their bad faith actions.

Ultimately, it’s your choice to sue after a car accident. However, you need a viable claim, and in most cases, you may get the results you want from negotiations. An experienced personal injury lawyer can review your case and advise you on the next steps to recover losses related to your car accident and injuries.