Who is Really at Fault in Single-Vehicle Accidents?

By Michael GrossmanJuly 06, 2015Reading Time: 5 minutes

Numerous people are injured or killed every day in single-vehicle accidents when they either lose control of their vehicle or allow themselves to become distracted. Often, the driver is 100% to blame for their own injuries or demise, and they truly were the only cause of the accident. However, there are many single-vehicle accidents that appear to be caused by driver error when, in actuality, someone else is to blame. In this article, we will talk about some of the most common single-vehicle accident scenarios, and explain how lawyers determine whether or not the victim is truly to blame.

Common single-vehicle accident scenarios where the driver is unquestionably at fault.

  • Accidents caused by distractions related to technology. We all know the current "don't text and drive" movement, but texting actually isn't the only dangerous technologically related distraction. Making phone calls, taking pictures, fiddling with the radio or entertainment components of the car: these are all distractions that can cause an accident in a split second.
  • Operating a vehicle well outside of a reasonable performance envelope or at an excessive speed. Any car sold should have the capability to perform up to a certain standard. For example, all cars should be able to do standard procedures like swerve to avoid a person or animal in the road when going a reasonable speed of, say, 45 miles per hour. If a car were to flip over in this scenario, we could probably be pretty sure that something was wrong with the car. However, if that same car tried to swerve to avoid an obstacle while going down a steep hill at 70 mph, we probably wouldn't be very surprised if that car rolled.
  • Vehicular suicide. This isn't very common, but there are occasionally cases where someone will use their vehicle to reach excess speeds and drive into an obstacle or body of water as a means of ending their life.

Common scenarios where the driver isn't at fault.

  • Wrecks that appear to be single-vehicle wrecks but are actually caused by another vehicle running them off the road. This could be the result of road rage, reckless driving, driving while under the influence, or errors in judgment, such as going down the wrong side of a one-way street.
  • Rollovers that were caused by a mechanical failure (e.g. a tire blowout, steering failure, etc.) Assuming reasonable speed and standard road conditions, cars should not roll over when drivers take normal evasive maneuvers.
  • Single-vehicle drunk driving accidents. If someone drives after having one or two drinks and causes an accident, it would be undoubtedly be considered the fault of the driver who chose to have those drinks. However, in many states it is illegal for a bar to serve someone who is already drunk. If a bar serves a customer enough alcohol to get them drunk in the first place, that's not strictly illegal in most states. However, if the bar knows the customer is drunk enough to be dangerous on the road, and continues to serve them anyway, that's when the bar could become liable. Make no mistake about it, most juries will still place some amount of fault on the drunk driver, but at a certain level of intoxication, people can barely form sentences, much less make rational decisions about whether or not it is safe for them to drive. When such an event happens and it can be proven the bar knowingly contributed to that person's intoxication, then the bar can be forced to pay a percentage of the damages incurred by those injured or families of the deceased for their contribution to the accident.
  • Accidents caused by a loss of control that was initiated by normal human behavior. This one is the opposite of "operating a vehicle outside of a reasonable performance envelope." Every car has a point at which it can be maxed out, where you can't keep pushing it or it will lose control, but that's not what we're talking about here. The law requires manufacturers to sell cars that all have at least some baseline level of capabilities. Sure, any SUV, no matter how well designed, will roll over if you are going 130 mph and you yank the steering wheel, but if an SUV rolls over at 50 mph when the driver is doing nothing more than reacting to a common road hazard (such as a tire in the road or a car that swerves into their lane) then that reflects a vehicle that was poorly designed. It would be impossible for car manufacturers to make every vehicle have the same performance envelope. Dump trucks will never handle as well as sports cars and sports cars will never travel off-road as well as SUVs, but since car manufacturers well understand that in a variety of accident scenarios human beings will most likely react in a predictable fashion, all cars are expected to be able to accommodate such normal reactions. If someone is injured or killed for using a car the way people normally use cars, the manufacturer of the car is likely liable for the accident.
  • Wrecks caused by mechanical or electronic failures. One of the most recent examples in this category, which most people have heard of, is the faulty ignition switch in many General Motors vehicles. This defect caused hundreds of vehicles to shut off while driving on the highway, and as a consequence, the driver of the vehicle was left without steering, brakes, or airbags, while moving at excess speeds, an incredibly dangerous situation.

Common scenarios where the driver is at fault for the wreck, but not to blame for the severity of injuries.

Sometimes drivers will lose control because of some act of carelessness or negligence and will crash with such force that serious injury or death is a foregone conclusion. Under such circumstances, that driver, and no one else, is legally to blame for their own death. But what about situations where the driver's carelessness causes an accident, yet their injuries are way worse than should be expected? According to the law, an automobile's safety features are supposed to protect everyone, not just those with perfect driving records.

In short, it doesn't matter if the driver's carelessness caused the accident. If the car malfunctions, the manufacturer is still liable for injuries. Here's an example:

A blue Honda Civic is speeding down the highway, hits a patch of water, hydroplanes into a concrete divider, and the air bags deploy. The driver of this vehicle suffers some minor aches and pains from the accident. 30 seconds later, a red Honda Civic experiences the exact same problem, but the air bags fail to deploy. This driver suffers multiple facial fractures, severe whiplash, and several other serious injuries. The law would hold that even though both drivers committed errors in judgement while driving and are responsible for their accidents, the manufacturer of the red car would be liable for the extended injuries sustained. As I mentioned earlier, safety features like air bags are not supposed to pass judgement on the occupants of the car.

How do we tell the difference between the types of single-vehicle accidents?

Often, police will investigate the scene of an accident in a very two-dimensional way, meaning that they will look at the initial observations and make a ruling about what happened. In some cases, they may be correct in their observations. In other cases, we find out there is more to it than the police initially thought. Sometimes it takes a lot of investigative work and a team of professionals in order to find out the truth about what really happened in a single-vehicle accident.

Photo credit: Greg Mason, The Citizen.