Fault and Liability for Motor Vehicle Accidents

Liability and Fault

Under common law, the person who is at fault for the accident must pay compensation for the injuries and damages caused by the accident. However, there are many laws, both Federal and state that can affect the liability of the person at fault. Some laws limit the liability of the person at fault while some laws may completely absolve the person of liability for the accident.

Generally, in a motor vehicle accident, it is the insurance company of the person who is at fault that will have to make the payment. Sometimes the at fault person may not have sufficient insurance coverage to pay for the injuries and damages caused by the accident – underinsured driver. In some cases, the at fault person may not have any insurance – uninsured driver. If the at fault person does not have insurance coverage, the injured victim can sue the at fault personally and can enforce the judgment by seizing the personal properties of the at fault person.

Determining Fault

Determining who is at fault is the main issue in a motor vehicle accident claim. Sometimes there may be statutes that determine who is at fault. In the absence of any specific statutes that determine who is at fault, fault is generally determined by common law principles. There are four levels of fault in common law – negligence, recklessness, intentional misconduct and strict liability.

When a person’s conduct does harm to another person, the person is said to be negligent. Most motor vehicle accident claims are based on the theory of negligence. Negligence includes doing something or failing to do something. It is generally based on the concept of what a reasonable person would have done in similar circumstances.

Recklessness is conduct which creates a higher degree of risk than that created by simple negligence. It is essentially conduct with no or scant regard for the safety of others. Unlike the negligence cause of action, the plaintiff’s contributory negligence does not operate as a defense to the defendant’s reckless conduct.

Intentional misconduct as the name suggests is misconduct, i.e. wrongful action that is intentional. Strict liability in law refers broadly to the irrelevance of “blame” or fault in legal proceedings. Findings may thus be reached on more objective bases, without examination of individual intent.


Under common law, most motor vehicle accidents are torts. Tort is generally not based on statute nor is it a crime. The person who caused or whose negligence resulted in the accident is called the tortfeasor.

A tort is a civil wrong that is committed by any entity against a persona and that results in injury to that person, property, economic status, emotional well being and personal relationships. The injured party can sue the tortfeasor for some form of compensation and can pursue the lawsuit in a civil court.

Sometimes there may be multiple tortfeasors in a motor vehicle accident. In such cases, the liability for the damages is distributed amongst the tortfeasors according to state law.

Statutory Violations

All states have laws that regulate the driving and operation of a motor vehicle. A person driving or operating a motor vehicle must comply with these laws.

A person who violates any of these laws while driving or operating a motor vehicle will be assumed to be negligent party and therefore at fault for any resulting accident. In such cases, unless the person can prove that he or she was not negligent or that the negligence was not the cause of the accident, the courts will rule in favor of the claimant. The court will use the “but for” principle to determine fault –the accident wouldn’t have occurred but for the violation.

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