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Can You be Compensated for Injuries in an Auto Accident That’s Partially Your Fault?

There are no perfect drivers. At a moment when you may have been less than perfect, a vehicle accident may have occurred. You may have been travelling a little over the speed limit. The yellow light at the intersection may have turned red as soon as you entered it.

In most states  those who are partially at fault can be compensated for their injuries, though the amount may be reduced, depending on how much fault is yours. Most states require drivers to have vehicle insurance. You should be covered by your insurance up to your policy limits even if the accident is your fault and no one else’s.

If you reach the policy limit, unless you have some other insurance (such as health insurance for your own injuries), you will have to bear the cost. If you have only the legal minimum vehicle coverage, it may not last long, depending on the extent of your injuries and damage to your vehicle.

Fault and negligence

If you’re not at fault or the other party’s actions are a greater cause of the accident than yours, fault matters. A personal injury lawsuit to recover damages to compensate you for the harm caused by the mistakes of the other party would be a negligence action. Negligence laws vary from state to state, but negligence generally requires the plaintiff (the party filing the lawsuit) to prove that it’s more likely than not that all of the following are true:

  • The defendant (the party being sued, although it’s his or her insurance company providing the defense attorney and the company would pay the settlement or verdict up to the policy limit) owed the plaintiff a legal duty or obligation (to act as a reasonable person under the circumstances and not endanger others).
  • The defendant breached that duty by doing something, or failing to do something.
  • The breach is the factual and legal (or proximate) cause of the plaintiff’s injury or economic losses.
  • That injury or loss resulted in damages (a way to measure harm in dollars).
  • Under state law the defendant is obligated to compensate the plaintiff by paying those damages.

Differing legal approaches when more than one party is at fault

In a few states, any degree of fault by an accident victim results in the personal injury lawsuit's being dismissed. Most jurisdictions aren’t that severe and take a more even-handed approach.

  • Comparative negligence: If it’s shown that the defendant is at least partially at fault for a collision, the plaintiff can have a verdict in his or her favor; but the damages award will be cut, based on the plaintiff’s share of the fault. This system is in force in 11 states.
  • Modified comparative negligence: If the plaintiff established that he or she is no more than 49% or 50% (depending on the state) to blame, a verdict could go with the plaintiff. The plaintiff’s damages would reflect the degree of the defendant’s fault. This approach has been adopted in 33 states.
  • Contributory negligence: If the plaintiff is at fault to any degree, a personal injury lawsuit seeking damages for injuries would be dismissed. This is the law in five states.

This leaves South Dakota. Its civil negligence approach is unique. The plaintiff can recover damages if his or her fault is no more than “slight” and the defendant’s negligence is at least “gross.” If the facts don’t fit into this framework, the plaintiff can’t recover damages.

Fault and measuring harm

Fault can be an issue when a jury measures damages to be awarded to the plaintiff. A defendant could argue the plaintiff is at least partially at fault for the harm resulting from the accident, depending on the plaintiff’s decisions and actions after the accident. Plaintiffs must mitigate (or lessen) their damages and act as a reasonable person would.

  • If the accident resulted in your losing your job due to too many absences, don’t treat this as a paid vacation. Don’t assume a lawsuit will replace that income. If your doctor clears you to work, you need to do so, or at least actively look for another job. If your injuries cause you to be too disabled to work, you may qualify for Social Security disability benefits or benefits from a private disability insurance policy.
  • You need to follow your physician’s directions. Don’t ignore them or decide you’ll comply with some but not others. If you allow your condition to worsen and increase your disability, it will complicate your damages claim. Your damages may be reduced, or you may not get any. If you in good faith disagree with the medical advice you receive, you can get another opinion. You must act reasonably.

Fault may or may not be an issue, depending on the facts of your accident, your injuries and recovery, as well as the laws of the state where the accident happened. Even if you are partially at fault for the accident, in most states you may still have legal rights to compensation for your injuries. The best way to find out is to discuss your situation with an attorney you trust to handle your case.

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