Who is Responsible?
Theories of Liability
People often wonder how courts determine who is to be paid money damages - a court ordered award - in an accident case. That depends upon what is presented and proven at trial (see preserving accident evidence, evidence & the burden of proof, conflicts of evidence, consistency in evidence, when to hire an attorney), the type of injuries and the extent of injuries, among other factors. All of which rest of the question of who is responsible, hence liable for the accident. Who caused the accident?
In the State of Iowa, anyone who is injured, disabled, permanently disabled or killed in a car, truck, motorcycle, bus or other vehicle accident due to the negligence or wrongdoing of someone else may seek and obtain compensation for their injuries from the person that is at fault.
In Iowa, negligence is generally defined as conduct that falls below the standard established by law for the protection of others against unreasonable risk of harm.
In other words if your injuries are caused by an individual, corporation or other entity acting or failing to act in a reasonable manner, you may be entitled to compensation. This includes injuries resulting from car, truck or motorcycle accidents.
At-Fault Party Held Responsible
The following are some common ways that the at-fault party is held responsible under the law. This list is not all-inclusive.
A. Traffic Violations
In the State of Iowa, drivers of motor vehicles are required to abide by the law regulating the use of our highways. Violation of any traffic law resulting in an accident or collision constitutes negligence and the offending party is liable for the injuries caused as a result. Some of the most common traffic violations that cause injuries resulting from car, truck, bus or motorcycle accidents are as follows:
1. Failure to keep vehicle under control and maintain a proper lookout: Iowa law requires that an operator of a motor vehicle must at all times keep their vehicle under control and reduce the speed to a reasonable and proper rate when approaching pedestrians, intersections, bridges, sharp turns or curves, emergency warning devices, slow moving vehicles, construction areas and animals being ridden or lead, among other things.
2. Failure to Yield: A driver who is starting their vehicle from a stopped position may not proceed unless the movement can be done with reasonable safety. The following vehicles must yield to oncoming traffic:
a. Left hand turns;
b. When entering an intersection the vehicle on left must always yield to vehicle on right unless traffic control devices specify otherwise;
c. Vehicle proceeding from stop signs after stopping;
d. Vehicle subject to a Yield sign;
3. Failure to Obey Traffic Control Device. As the name suggests, all drivers of motor vehicles are required to obey traffic control devices.
4. Speed. All motor vehicles must be driven at a “careful and prudent speed” not to exceed the posted speed limit. Oftentimes weather or environmental conditions may require a slower then posted speed if a reasonable person would find it necessary. Additionally, the following speed restrictions apply if not otherwise posted:
a. 20 MPH in business district;
b. 25 MPH in residential or school district;
c. 45 MPH in suburban district;
d. 55 MPH if a-c do not apply and not otherwise posted;
e. 55 MPH on gravel or secondary unpaved roads;
f. 65 MPH on multiple lane highways;
g. 70 MPH on Interstate;
h. 35 MPH, certain farm equipment.
An individual may also be responsible for accidents caused by driving too slowly if it “impedes or blocks” the normal movement of traffic unless that speed is necessary for “safe operation or compliance with the law.”
5. Following too closely. Drivers may not follow another vehicle too closely. Whether or not a driver is following too closely is judged by a reasonableness standard which in essence means, if you can’t stop safely without hitting the car in front of you, you are driving too close. However, there are also specific regulations for some vehicles which are as follows:
a. Motor trucks (motor vehicle designed primarily for transporting livestock, merchandise, freight or more than 9 passengers) or a vehicle that is towing another vehicle must remain 300 behind another motor truck or vehicle in tow.
6. Lighting equipment. All vehicles on the roads are required to have working headlights, rear lights, break lights, signal lights and all other equipment originally manufactured on the vehicle must also be in proper working condition. All semis and other “motor trucks” must also be equipped with the appropriate reflectors and clearance lamps so that they can be adequately noticed at night.
B. Ordinary Care
In addition to traffic violations, all drivers of motor vehicles are held to what is called the “standard of ordinary care.” In other words, we are all required to exercise reasonable caution and common sense when driving our vehicles. Failure to do so can be grounds for liability for injuries caused by failure to exercise ordinary care.
It is said that the average drunk driver will drive drunk approximately 300 times before being apprehended by law enforcement. According to the Iowa Department of Transportation statistics, there were approximately 22,000 drunk driving license revocations in 2004 alone. These are just the individuals that get caught. In 2006 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 42,642 nationwide traffic fatalities with 17,602 being alcohol related. 13,370 of the alcohol related fatalities involved a driver that had an alcohol concentration in excess of .08. Iowa accounted for 148 alcohol related fatalities with 122 involving a driver with an alcohol concentration in excess of .08. [Link to NHTSA Publication]
Obviously an individual that drives a vehicle with an alcohol concentration in excess of the legal limit (.08 for private vehicles; .04 for commercial vehicles; .02 for drivers under 21 years of age) or while impaired by the alcohol, is negligent. However, Iowa law also provides that the operation of a motor vehicle with an alcohol concentration in excess of the legal limit also constitutes Recklessness which may give rise to punitive damages.
It is commonly said that “pedestrians have the right of way.” This is true to a certain extent. Pedestrians do have the right of way when they are crossing at controlled intersections and in compliance with the pedestrian control devices. At uncontrolled intersections, pedestrians also have the right of way so long as they are crossing within a marked cross walk or if no marked crosswalk is available, at the intersection. If the person elects to cross the street not at the intersection or not within the marked crosswalk the normal rules of comparative fault will apply and the totality of the circumstances must be evaluated to determine who was at fault for the collision.
E. Other Theories of Liability
1. Owner Liability: Clearly the driver of the vehicle that is at fault for the accident can be held responsible. However, many people are unaware that the owner of the vehicle is also responsible for injuries caused by the person driving the vehicle with the owners consent. It does not matter whether the owner was negligent or not, by law, the owner of a vehicle is also liable for injuries caused by the negligence of the driver. This includes companies and corporations that own fleets of vehicles. For example, if you are hit and injured by a FedEx truck, both the driver and the company will be legally liable to compensate you for your injuries.
2. Dram Shop or Alcohol Establishment Liability: Any establishment that sells or serves alcohol to someone who the server knew or should have know was intoxicated or would become intoxicated as a result of the consumption of that drink is liable for the injuries caused to others by the intoxicated individual. A common example of “Dram Shop” liability is when a bar tender continues to serve someone to the point of intoxication and that person then drives home, gets in an accident and injures or kills someone else. The bar is then liable in addition to the driver for damages caused as a result. This theory can also be used when the injured or deceased person was a passenger in the vehicle driven by the intoxicated individual.
3. Livestock at large: This happens more then one would think. An owner of livestock that does not exercise ordinary care in preventing their animals from wandering at large may be held responsible for injuries and death resulting from accidents caused by the at large animals.
4. Emergency Vehicles: Ordinarily the operators of emergency vehicles are not bound by the rules of the road. However, this immunity does not apply unless the vehicles sirens or emergency lights are activated. Additionally, emergency vehicles do not avoid liability even if their lights or sirens are activated if their actions can be considered reckless.
The same rules apply for single car accidents where passengers are injured. Anytime a passenger is injured in a single car accident, the driver (with a few exceptions) is responsible for the injuries caused to his/her passengers. This is because as explained above, the driver of a car, bus, truck, motorcycle or other vehicle has a legal obligation to keep the vehicle under control at all times.
It is also important to understand that when a claim is made against an at-fault party or even if a law suit is filed for compensation for injures sustained in the accident, the person against whom the claim is being made does not have to pay out of his/her own pocket. This is why the State of Iowa requires that all vehicles be insured with minimum amounts of liability insurance. In all reality, it is the insurance company that is being sued and it is the person’s insurance company that makes the payment for injuries sustained.
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