In a car accident case, proving that a driver was at fault usually means establishing that he or she was negligent. The elements of a car accident negligence claim -- indeed, the basic elements of any negligence claim -- are duty, breach, causation and damages. Unless you went to law school or work in the insurance industry, however, these terms likely have little or no practical meaning. The information in the sections below should help.
Every driver in every state has a basic legal duty to operate a motor vehicle in a non-negligent manner, which means a manner that is not potentially harmful -- to other drivers and to property. Every driver is taught as much from day one of driver education classes. As duties go, this one is relatively straightforward. Don’t drive in a manner that could potentially cause injury to others or damage to property. Obey traffic laws, speed limits, and traffic signs, use your turn signals, etc.
All of the little rules, laws and ordinances that drivers take for granted as common knowledge on a daily basis are attempts to codify the basic duty to drive in a non-negligent manner.
The second element of any car accident negligence claim is breach. Breach of what, exactly? Breach of the basic duty discussed above. A driver who operates their vehicle in a negligent manner -- a manner that could potentially cause harm to another person or damage to property -- has breached a basic duty of care owed to other drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and any other foreseeable person.
Breaches can be relatively minor (failure to use a turn signal, speeding, rolling through a stop sign) and occur every day without injury. The truth is that anyone who has ever operated a motor vehicle has breached his or her duty of care in at least a minor way. These small breaches can be the embodiment of the idea of “no harm, no foul,” unless the result is a car accident. That's when the concept of negligence comes into play and determines who was liable for the accident.
On the other side of the spectrum, car accident negligence claims can involve egregious breaches of duty. Drunk driving, reckless speeding, and running red lights -- each of these can cause catastrophic injury or even death. Breaches can even be intentional, which can take car accident negligence claims from civil court to criminal court in certain instances.
Causation and damages, the final two elements of a car accident negligence case, are best discussed together, as they are closely related. If a judge or jury determines that the other driver's breach of duty was the cause of your damages (meaning your injuries or other losses), you should prevail in your car accident negligence case.
Causation comes in two varieties: cause-in-fact and proximate cause. Cause-in-fact refers to a breach of the duty of care being the actual, direct cause of a particular result. For example, a car that hits a pedestrian in a crosswalk is the cause-in-fact of the pedestrian’s broken leg. Proximate cause, also referred to as “but for causation,” means that even though a particular breach may not have directly caused damage, the damage would not have occurred but for the breach. For example, a drunk driver loses control of his vehicle, runs into a utility pole, which then falls on a pedestrian breaking the pedestrian’s leg. But for the drunk driver’s breach of duty, the pedestrian would not have been hurt.
Damages also come in a few different flavors. Damages can be injuries to your person, physical damage to your property, monetary damages, or the nebulous “pain and suffering,” which can encompass everything from psychological damage to inconvenience resulting from an injury. Damages are further broken down into two categories. Economic damages are quantifiable. Non-economic damages are not. An example of the former is the repair bill for damage to your car. An example of the latter is pain and suffering.
While the basic elements of car accident negligence claims do not change from state to state, the practical side of things depends on the law of your jurisdiction. Some states are “no-fault” states, which generally require all drivers to carry auto insurance -- and collect from their own insurance regardless of who was negligent and therefore at fault for a car accident (unless a certain injury threshold is met, in which case a negligence lawsuit can go forward). And state laws also vary on how an injured person's own negligence might affect their case against another driver. Learn more about Car Accident Laws State-by-State.