The Rights of Passengers Injured in Car Accidents

Michael GrossmanJuly 12, 2015 3 minutes

One of the trickier parts of my job is explaining complex legal concepts to non-attorneys. I enjoy doing this, but most legal theory is at least somewhat difficult to wrap your mind around. However, today's subject matter, the rights of passengers who are injured in car wrecks, is pretty easy to explain. In fact, it can be summarized in a single sentence: Unless the passenger literally grabbed the steering wheel and caused the accident, they have a viable case against somebody.

Let's take a closer look at what this means as far as the law is concerned. In any car accident case, no matter how obvious the wrongdoer's liability may seem, they always have an opportunity to defend themselves. I mean this in the literal sense that they are afforded the due process of law, just like any criminal, but I also mean it in a practical sense: they can always cook up some sort of theory to distract a jury from their own fault.

For instance, if I'm sitting at a stoplight and am rear-ended by a drunk driver, clearly he is in the wrong. However, if I sue that driver, he has the right to form arguments against me to both downplay his fault and downplay the extent of my injuries. Of greater concern, he can also argue a defense called contributory negligence, which means that he is saying I'm also to blame for the accident. For instance, he could say that he rear-ended me because I suddenly changed lanes in front of him at the last second, or something like that.

It's basically the age-old "blame the victim" strategy. If the defendant is a drunk driver who runs into the back of a parked car, his attorney is going to argue that the accident may not have been so bad if the driver of the parked car had at least tried to get out of the way. If the at-fault driver blew through a stop sign, his attorney will claim the victim should have exercised greater caution when going through the intersection, even though they had the right of way.

The point in all this is that almost every case out there has at least one built-in defense that even a patently negligent defendant can use in an attempt to downplay their fault. The one exception to this is collisions in which the injured party is a passenger in a car. Passengers are literally just along for the ride, so unless the passenger does something dramatic like grabbing the steering wheel, there is almost no argument a defendant can make against them. This results in passengers having the right to sue for their injuries (for things like lost wages, pain and suffering, medical bills, etc.) without the potential stumbling block of the defendant being able to cook up an argument against them.

Passengers may have a case against multiple parties

If a passenger in car A suffers injuries because the driver of car B caused an accident by running a stop sign, then the passenger has a case against the driver. But let's say that an investigation of the accident reveals that the drivers of cars A and B are both at fault, or that car B is obviously at fault, but a jury still puts some degree of fault on the driver of car A. None of this really matters to a passenger because they are able to recover damages from either driver (or more accurately in most cases, from their insurance companies.) In other words, injured passengers needn't care too much about who a jury ultimately says is at fault, because they will ultimately be able to make a valid claim against either or both parties, depending on their situation.

Even though passenger cases are easier, they still have obstacles.

As I pointed out, passengers pretty much always have a viable claim, but just as with any other type of case, an injured passenger is being unrealistic if they think they can call up an insurance company and get fair compensation. As with any other claim, passengers have to go through a legal process in order to get fair compensation. During that process, the insurance companies will have the opportunity to avoid giving any compensation. While the passengers may be free from blame for what caused their injuries, they aren't free from the need for legal counsel in order to receive fair compensation for their injuries.