Americans love their automobiles. In fact, in 2020, more than 275 million motor vehicles were registered in the United States. But unfortunately, with so many cars, pickups, motorcycles, semi-trucks, and other vehicles on the road, accidents will happen.
Unexpected, overwhelming, and capable of immediately changing your day, month, or even your life, an automobile accident is an incredibly serious and unfortunately common occurrence in the US. In the first half of 2022 alone, 20,175 people died in traffic accidents. While that statistic is down from 2020, it still paints a picture of how common these accidents are and how severe they can be.
Thankfully, not every auto accident is fatal. However, in the event of an injury, the costs of hospitals, doctors, ambulances and other medical needs can mount rapidly. Sometimes, a person injured in an auto accident will require rehabilitation, nursing, home care, and other services.
With those mounting costs, including revenue lost from missing work and repairs to the vehicle, an auto accident may turn into a personal injury case, with one or both parties seeking legal representation to recover from these damages.
Before you reach out to a legal professional, it’s essential to understand the ins and outs of an auto accident personal injury case.
Causes of Auto Accidents – And Who Is At Fault?
All of this leads to the inevitable question: “Who is responsible for all of these costs?” The answer largely depends on who is determined to be at fault for causing the accident. So, who determines fault in an accident? What information factors into the determination?
Types And Causes Of Automobile Accidents
An important element of determining fault in an automobile accident is causation. Causation in a personal injury case refers to what the plaintiff, or the plaintiff’s legal council, is in charge of proving to recover damages.
Sometimes, a collision occurs because two drivers are merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. That is, after all, why it is called an accident. However, a simple fender bender will have different ramifications than more nuanced causes of automobile accidents in the US.
Drunk driving is a prevalent cause of accidents, injury, and death in the United States. Millions are arrested every year for driving while under the influence every year. Accidents caused by a drunk driver usually seek to place fault on the person who was intoxicated when the accident occurred.
While driving while drunk is forwardly and openly dangerous, many drivers underestimate how dangerous distracted driving can be. Distracted driving can be anything from looking at and using a cell phone, eating, conversing, or even simply daydreaming.
Like drunk driving, a driver who is distracted behind the wheel is more likely to be at fault. However, it can be challenging to prove that someone was indeed distracted when there isn’t a traceable metric, the same way blood-alcohol content is used in a drunk driving case.
A Hit And Run
While we’d all like to think the best of people, that doesn’t mean everyone responsibly stops the car and trades insurance in the event of an accident. Dealing with a hit-and-run driver in an accident can be challenging, especially if you don’t know the person. The state of Oregon considers it a felony not to stop and comply with specific regulations in the event of an accident.
Semi Truck Automobile Accidents
While semi-trucks offer an invaluable service in shipping goods across the country, they also come with a degree of risk. Their sheer size and ample blind spots open the door for accidents, either with each other or smaller road vehicles.
Since semi-trucks are usually insured through the companies that own them, which can complicate the personal injury process. While semi-truck drivers can work to keep roadways safe, an accident with a semi-truck can involve complications with their and your insurance companies.
Auto Accident Injuries
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2012, more than 2.5 million people in the United States went to the emergency room due to injuries received in motor vehicle crashes. The CDC further concludes that, each year, Americans are hospitalized for more than one million days as the result of injuries from motor vehicle accidents – and that for every person killed in a crash, 99 received emergency room treatment, and 8 were hospitalized.
The CDC also reports that crash injuries resulted in $18 billion in lifetime medical costs in 2012, more than 75 percent of which occurred during the first 18 months following the crash. Victims lost $33 billion worth of lifetime work.
Should You Seek Medical Attention?
It’s clear that the injuries resulting from motor vehicle accidents, and the consequences from those injuries, can be severe. Whether or not you seek medical attention is up to you – however, you will need to keep records of that medical treatment if you’re taking your case to trial.
Fractures are some of the most common and familiar injuries associated with car accidents. Motor vehicle crashes can throw a passenger violently inside or outside the car or result in a crush injury, all of which can lead to broken bones (fractures), such as the following:
- Displaced fracture – The bone breaks completely, and one or more pieces move, so the bone is not lined up correctly.
- Non-displaced fracture – The bone is still lined up correctly, despite being cracked or broken.
- Open fracture – A broken bone comes through the skin.
- Closed fracture – Although the bone is broken, it does not cause a wound to the skin.
Some fractures can be treated with a cast. Others are much more complicated to treat and might require surgery, plates and screws, or hospitalization. Severe fractures can leave a patient with permanent physical limitations.
Head Injuries and Concussions
While seatbelts can greatly minimize injury, the head and brain are vulnerable parts of the body that come into immediate danger during a crash.
A person’s head can strike a window, steering wheel, or another hard surface. The severity of such a concussion can vary, but someone should treat even a minor head trauma with care. In addition to the contact-related injury, the brain can be jarred violently by sudden movement without striking anything at all, sometimes resulting in a concussion.
Such impact on the brain and head can cause further injury, including broken facial bones and traumatic brain injuries.
Neck injuries are very common in motor vehicle accidents. When a car crashes, it often causes the head to snap suddenly to the front or side. Sometimes called “whiplash,” these sudden movements can injure neck ligaments, resulting in strains or sprains. Minor neck injuries often resolve over time with limited or no treatment; however, serious whiplash injuries can be much more challenging to resolve.
One severe result of whiplash is disc herniation. Conservative treatment can be attempted, which may include physical therapy. However, the patient will often continue to have physical limitations and pain. Sometimes, surgery is necessary to repair the damage.
Sometimes, the thrashing around of the body in a car accident causes injuries to the back, such as sprains and strains, that will hopefully heal completely. But the spine is delicate and vulnerable to more serious injuries, such as broken vertebrae, herniated discs, and even paralysis. Back injuries from a car accident may require surgeries and hospitalization.
Some symptoms of minor incidents, like scratches, bruises, and bumps, will not require or warrant medical attention. Most fractures, back injuries, or head injuries are excruciating, and will alert you to their presence right away. However, other signs of injury take longer to develop, like changes in behavior, frequent unexplained headaches, or abdominal pain and swelling.
These slow-developing symptoms could be a sign of something serious, and shouldn’t be ignored, even if the accident was weeks or months ago.
Who determines fault in an accident?
There are two stages at which we often discuss the concept of fault. First, insurance companies will often make their own determinations. For example, as any one of us who drives an automobile in the state knows, Oregon law requires liability insurance coverage on all automobiles. However, a liability insurer must only pay this coverage if its insured is at fault for the accident.
Sometimes, the fault is clear in an accident, and the insurance company for the other driver will admit liability and pay on behalf of its insured. However, such conclusions aren’t as clear-cut.
How is fault determined?
It should come as no surprise that each liability insurer would prefer to blame fault on the opposing driver. Proving negligence or negligence per se can involve long battles of testimony, evidence, and discussion. Determining fault often comes from insurance companies, trial juries, and legal representation.
First, the insurance companies involved will assign adjusters to the case. These adjusters will examine the facts of the accident. This usually includes an examination of the damaged vehicles, a review of the police report, and an examination of the accident scene, if warranted.
Adjusters usually take numerous photographs, attempt to interview witnesses and obtain statements, and ultimately compare the physical evidence with the statements to draw conclusions.
The more serious the accident, the more intense the investigation will be. For example, in some cases, the insurance company may seek the assistance of an accident reconstruction expert, who measures skid marks and considers various factors to estimate the speed and movement of the vehicles.
As a note of caution, remember that the opposing driver’s insurer does not have your best interest in mind. Therefore, you should consult your attorney before speaking with the other driver’s insurance company. You should also consider what you should do if you or the other party do not have insurance.
While drivers, insurance adjusters, and lawyers may all have their opinions, they may not be able to agree with one another in assigning fault, especially if one party is not being wholly truthful. If the parties and their insurance companies cannot settle, we turn to the legal system and impartial juries. After all the evidence is presented in court, the jury will make the final determination both as to fault and reasonable damages.
Your Rights In An Automobile Accident As A Passenger
Driving a motor vehicle comes with a certain amount of inherent risk. Whether operating a car, truck, or motorcycle, we know that things can go wrong. Mechanical failures, road debris, the negligence of other drivers, and even our own lack of diligence can lead to unfortunate car wrecks and personal injuries.
However, we at least have some control over the situation when driving. But what about automobile passengers? Typically passengers are just “along for the ride” and have little to no control over whether a crash occurs.
Automobile Passengers Have Rights
Automobile passengers who suffer personal injuries in motor vehicle accidents have the same rights to be compensated for their injuries as anyone else. Passengers are often in the best position to prove their right to recover.
Assume a passenger is riding in a car that has a crash with another automobile or tractor-trailer truck. The drivers of both vehicles and the automobile passenger all suffer serious injuries. Who can recover against whom?
The law answers this by determining which driver is negligent and, therefore legally responsible for the accident. In many cases, the drivers of each vehicle will point the finger at one another, claiming that the other driver is liable for the accident. Sometimes it is clear that one driver or the other is responsible. In other cases, both drivers will be partly responsible. Finally, sometimes it takes a jury to make this determination.
Regarding the drivers, the determination of liability may prevent one of the drivers from recovering. However, a passenger is rarely responsible for an accident. Therefore, the passenger is free to sue either or both drivers. Thus, while the driver’s negligence may limit their recovery, the passenger typically will not face such a limitation.
Indeed, there are rare instances where a passenger takes action, such as grabbing the steering wheel or distracting the driver, that may be considered negligent and affect recovery. Still, these are the exception and not the rule.
Discomfort Over Suing a Driver
Sometimes, the negligent driver is actually the passenger’s friend or family member. We understand that the idea of suing such a person is unpleasant. But keep in mind that these cases typically involve negotiations with insurance companies. The passenger’s friend or family member purchased insurance for just such an occasion. An injured passenger deserves to be made whole. Plus, it may be possible to resolve the case with the insurance company without ever filing suit.
Insurance Coverage Can Be Complicated
Our simple example above considers only recovery against a driver, who should be covered by liability insurance. As we have previously discussed, Oregon law requires every automobile driver to carry certain minimum coverages. This includes personal injury protection (“PIP”), which provides coverage regardless of fault, and uninsured motorist coverage, which applies when the liable party does not have insurance, or has an insufficient amount of coverage.
Oregon requires the following insurance coverages:
- $25,000.00 bodily injury liability for a single person
- $50,000.00 bodily injury liability for multiple people in a single accident
- $20,000.00 property damage
- $15,000.00 PIP
- $25,000.00 UM coverage per person
- $50,000.00 UM coverage per crash
Keep in mind that multiple insurance policies may apply, including the passenger’s own insurance if one is involved. In some instances, the coverages “stack,” meaning that recovery is permitted under more than one policy. These determinations can be complicated, and the help of an experienced personal injury attorney is advisable.
At Nelson MacNeil Rayfield, we have decades of cumulative auto accident personal injury experience. Our knowledgeable, compassionate attornies are here to guide you through the process of getting back on track after an accident. Contact us today for a free consultation.