WHAT IS AUTOMOBILE NEGLIGENCE?
June 4th, 2019 | Donald C. Ligorio
Most motor vehicle lawsuits are brought under the legal principle of negligence which is defined as "the failure to exercise the standard of care that a reasonably prudent person would have exercised in a similar situation.” As HKQ Law Attorney Don Ligorio explains, “in Pennsylvania the individual initiating a negligence claim – the plaintiff – must establish four elements”. Those elements are:
(1) a duty of care
(2) a failure to perform that duty
(3) a factual cause of the injury
(4) an actual loss or injury
Duty of care is a legal obligation to act toward others and the public with the “watchfulness, attention, caution and prudence that a reasonable person in the same circumstances would use”. A defendant’s duty is breached by failure to exercise reasonable care in fulfilling that duty.
A wrongful act is considered the factual cause of an injury where the injury would not have occurred without the act. A plaintiff in a personal injury case must prove a legally recognized harm in the form of injury to a person.
A driver has a duty of using care to avoid injuring anyone encountered while driving, including passengers, pedestrians and other motorists. The vehicle must be operated with reasonable care at all times, taking into consideration factors such as weather, visibility and traffic conditions.
Some examples of a driver’s breach of duty include:
- Failing to obey traffic laws. Certain violations may constitute negligence per se, which means that the plaintiff need not establish that the defendant had a duty to act a certain way and breached that duty. The traffic violation itself is considered to be negligent because it broke a law that was intended to protect people from harm.
- Failing to use the vehicle’s equipment properly. (e.g., not using lights when required, not dimming high beams, not signaling when turning)
- Failing to maintain critical car components in working order. (These components include brakes, steering, lights)
- Failing to be vigilant. A driver who is not alert may fail to keep a proper lookout to unexpected occurrences on the road.
- Distracted driving. (e.g., texting/sending emails, taking a picture or “selfie”, eating, applying makeup, adjusting stereo or GPS settings)
- Drowsy driving. Posing a threat to other drivers on the road, this potential hazard is observed more frequently among long-distance drivers, late night/early morning shift workers and shift workers who work in excess of 50 hours per week.
- Driving under the influence. Accidents caused by a driver under the influence may involve additional defendants. Under Pennsylvania’s dram shop law, establishments licensed by the Commonwealth to sell alcohol may be held civilly liable for injuries caused to third parties by a patron whom they have served alcohol to when that patron was “visibly intoxicated”. Pennsylvania also imposes civil liability for “social hosts” who “knowingly furnished" alcohol to those underage, if the underage individual then causes harm to a third party. Pennsylvania courts interpret “knowingly” broadly, so it is not necessary that the host hands a drink to the underage individual. Participating in planning the party or “substantially aiding” the underage drinking would give rise to liability. Pennsylvania’s social host law does not recognize claims involving intoxicated adults, even if the adult was provided with alcohol while “visibly intoxicated.”
In legal parlance, the word damages refers to “monetary compensation which may be recovered in the courts by any person who has suffered loss, detriment or injury”. In a personal injury lawsuit, compensation can be sought for economic and non-economic damages. Economic damages compensate for actual costs, such as medical expenses and lost wages due to time off for work. Non-economic damages cover intangible costs such as pain and suffering. Pennsylvania also allows an injured party to make a claim for punitive damages, damages exceeding simple compensation and awarded to punish the defendant in cases of reckless indifference or disregard. Knowingly violating laws, driving under the influence, texting while driving, extreme drowsiness and reckless indifference are examples of driving while knowing you are unfit to drive, and may give rise to a claim for punitive damages.