Proving Fault In A Car Accident
Massachusetts is a no-fault insurance state. This means that in the event of a car accident, your car own insurance will cover a certain amount of your medical bills, a certain amount of lost wages, and other related expenses, regardless of who caused the accident. Such payments are made through the Personal Injury Protection portion of your car insurance policy, sometimes referred to as P.I.P. benefits. These benefits, however, do not pay for pain and suffering, an altered quality of life, future loss of earning capacity, etc.
So, in theory, your own insurance company is supposed to pay and/or reimburse you for accident related-medical expenses and lost wage expenses relatively quickly and without the need for you to prove fault on the part of the other driver. However, it is important that you are able to prove fault on the other driver, especially if you have substantial injuries and damages.
The only circumstance under which you can sue the other driver for personal injury claims (and recover money for economic losses such as medical bills and lost wages, as well as pain and suffering) is when you meet the Massachusetts “tort threshold.” The so-called “tort threshold” essentially means that you must be eligible or qualify to file a personal injury claim against the other at-fault driver based upon certain criteria stated in the law. You qualify to bring such a claim if the accident has given rise to any one of the following injuries:
- “reasonable and necessary” medical bills in excess of $2,000
- broken bones
- a serious or permanent disfigurement
- lost hearing or vision
- partial or complete loss of a body part
- death (family members are entitled to sue on behalf of the deceased).
So where does fault come in?
Fault only becomes an issue in Massachusetts if you have met the above tort threshold and are thus able to sue the other driver to recover damages for all of your injuries, including economic losses and pain and suffering. Massachusetts uses a “modified comparative negligence” system to allocate fault. This means that you can only recover for injuries if you are considered to be less than 51% at-fault in the accident. In other words, if a judge or jury determines that you are 51% at fault or more for the accident, you’ll recover nothing. If you are 50% or less at fault, you can recover, but your recovery is reduced by the percentage amount of your fault. And of course, if you are not at fault at all, you are entitled to recover 100 percent of your damages.
To illustrate: Let’s say you’re suing the other driver for your damages and the case goes to trial and the jury decides that you are not fault at all, i.e. zero percent at fault. You would recover 100% of whatever the jury awarded. So if a jury awarded $50,000, you would be awarded $50,000 (of course, to collect $50,000 there would need to be insurance coverage for this amount). Let’s say a jury, however, awarded $50,000 but found you as the plaintiff to be 50% at fault. That means you’ll be allowed to recover $25,000 instead of the full $50,000, since you were determined to be half responsible for the accident. Correspondingly, if the jury were to decide that you’re 51% at fault, you won’t recover anything at all under the Massachusetts system.
This is why it’s so important to gather and preserve evidence following a Massachusetts car accident: In the event you satisfy the tort threshold or eligibility requirements, you need to be prepared to show that it was the other driver that was negligent and at fault, and that you were – at a minimum – less than 51% at fault.
Remember, as a practical matter, before any legal claim is presented to a jury, the legal claim is first presented to the at-fault driver’s insurance company for evaluation. If the injured party, with the assistance of his or her attorney, can convince the other driver’s insurance company that the other driver was at fault for the accident, then the other driver’s insurance company can choose to pay the claim in a so-called out of court settlement. It is only when the other driver’s insurance company disputes who is at fault (or sometimes disputes the amount of damages to be paid) that a legal claim must be presented to a jury to determine the issue of fault.
What kind of evidence helps prove fault in a car accident?
A police report
A police report will indicate whether the police have cited the other driver for a traffic violation or some other violation, such as drunk driving. Also, the reporting officer may have included his or her opinion as to who caused the accident in the report, which could be valuable in settlement negotiations with the other driver’s insurance company, although a police officer’s opinion (unless he or she was an accident reconstructionist) is not admissible in evidence in a lawsuit.
The statements contained in the operator’s reports of the participants in an accident constitute “admissions” of the parties and are generally admissible in evidence and important to consider in evaluating fault. Such reports often contain statement of speed, distance, perception, and what a motorist did in an effort to avoid a collision
If possible, take photos (and even video) of the accident site from multiple angles. This will preserve the appearance of the road, especially in case the city or town makes changes to the road in the future. It will also preserve the situation of traffic controls, signs, etc., as well as provide evidence of site lines and visibility. Also, photos should be taken of damage to your own vehicle. This can be a helpful in proving the location of impact between vehicles. If possible, photos of the other vehicle should be taken as well.
The evidence of the accident site and vehicles can be helpful in the event it is necessary for the attorney to hire an accident reconstruction expert to piece together the sequence of events and issue an opinion on how the accident occurred.
Obtain the names and telephone numbers of as many witnesses as possible. They can provide valuable testimony about what happened, including traffic violations witnessed or other contributing factors.
Rear-End Collision and Left-Turn Impacts
When there’s been a rear-end collision or a left-turn side impact, there is a strong inference that the driver who hit the other car caused the accident – or at least was primarily responsible for it. So, if you’ve been rear-ended or hit by a driver making a left turn, you have strong (but again, not conclusive) evidence that you weren’t responsible for the accident.
Rules of the Road – Mass. General Laws, Chapter 89
Chapter 89 of the Mass General Laws pertains to the so called Rules of the Road. Any evidence which exists that a party violated any such rules or laws of the road, while not conclusive, is considered evidence of negligence or fault.
Rules relative to Motor Vehicle equipment and maintenance – Mass. General Laws, Chapter 90
Chapter 90 of the Mass General Laws pertains to and regulates the condition of motor vehicles. For example, regulations or standards exist as to tires, brakes, lights, etc. Under some circumstances, violations of Chapter 90 can also considered evidence of negligence or fault.
Contact an Experienced Worcester Attorney
Peter Ventura is a motor vehicle accident lawyer committed to helping people in Massachusetts who have been injured in accidents obtain compensation for their injuries. Contact us today for a free consultation, or call us at 508-755-7535.