The Basis of Legal Liability: Potential Theories of Fault

GavelWhen you have been involved in a motor vehicle accident that is not your fault, it is important to have an understanding of legal rights. As you will see, the law can be a complicated and dense arena, so it is important to have an experienced personal injury attorney to explain the aspects of your case, advocate for your rights, and ensure the best result possible for your recovery. Still, it makes the process much easier when you have a clear understanding of the laws that govern motor vehicle accidents. This chapter maps out a journey to understanding various areas Louisiana law that is generally involved with motor vehicle accidents. Beginning with an explanation of what indicates fault in Louisiana, and overview of the primary theory of fault that governs motor vehicle accidents, negligence, you will gain a foundation for how the decides whether you have a valuable auto accident claim. Once you have a foundation of the primary laws governing motor vehicle accidents, a look at other theories of fault, which follow, may be applicable to the specific facts of your accident, and could affect the outcome of a favorable recovery for your injury. The laws regarding liability for motor vehicle accidents are found in Louisiana tort law.

Torts are wrongful or harmful acts that create civil liability. The fundamental principal under Louisiana tort law is that every person is responsible to repair any damage they may cause to another person. Also, a person is only liable for the damage that is caused by his or her fault. There are a variety of different categories of tort law that impose liability for injuries and damages in Louisiana, and they are all referred to as “fault.” The different theories of fault in tort law range in degree of “blameworthiness” of the defendant. Motor vehicle accidents are governed by the theory of fault called negligence. Negligence is different from wrongful acts which are done purposefully with the specific intent to cause an injury, the most “blameworthy” theory of fault. Instead, negligence is usually defined as conduct which falls below the standard of care established by law for the protection of others against an unreasonable risk of harm, harm which could have been prevented. When the driver of a motor vehicle is negligent, he/she failed to take precautions that the law has deemed necessary to be a cautious and prudent driver. If a driver’s negligence is the cause of injury to another person, then the driver will be liable to repair those injuries.

Not all motor vehicle accidents impose liability on one driver for their negligent actions.  Louisiana courts have adopted a method, called the duty-risk analysis, to determine whether a negligent driver is liable for damages resulting from a motor vehicle accident. The duty-risk analysis examines all the particular facts of the accident in question, as well as the conduct of all parties involved. This necessary analysis is designed to protect innocent injury victims so that they may recover for their damages, but, it is also designed to protect innocent drivers that are being sued for damages due to alleged negligence. The duty-risk analysis is comprised of a series of four elements which all must be proven in order to impose liability for negligence. In Louisiana law, the elements are generally referred to as cause-in fact, duty, breach of duty, and damages. An experienced personal injury attorney can conclude if the facts of your case meet each of these elements very quickly once they have attained all the pertinent facts of your case. However, a brief description of each element will help you decide if your case is a viable auto accident claim and whether you want to seek legal representation.

First, the negligent conduct of the at-fault driver must be the cause of the plaintiff’s injury and/or damages. In regards to motor vehicle accidents, the causation factor is usually easy to determine in a case where the Plaintiff suffers no prior injury that is related to the injury they are alleging in the present case. If the injury would not have occurred but for the defendant’s negligent conduct, then the causation factor has been met. However, the defendant’s negligent conduct does not have to be the sole cause of the injury in a case where there was more than one simultaneous cause for the injury. In the latter situation, as long as the negligent conduct was a substantial factor in bringing about the injury, the causation factor has been met.

An example of a situation where there could be more than one cause of the injury may help bring understanding to this concept. Imagine you are driving to a restaurant and Sue Doe suddenly hits you from behind causing you to now have a painful back injury. Clearly, Sue is at fault and is liable to you to repair those injuries. However, there was another vehicle involved in the accident. It appears that Sue was also hit from behind, by John Doe, which caused her to hit you. Now, Sue and John are liable to you for the injury you have incurred because they’re actions were both substantial factors in the cause of your injury.

The causation element is fact based and depends on all the particulars of every individual accident. However, the next element, duty, is a question of law and is actually comprised of a dual analysis. First, it must be determined that the at-fault party owed a duty to you to conduct his/her actions in a certain manner. This means that there must be some law, whether statutory, jurisprudential, or arising from general principles of fault, which the at-fault driver was under a duty to maintain at the time of the accident. In Louisiana, motorists must use such diligence and care in the operation of his/her vehicle that is appropriate for the circumstances. There is a well-established list of duties that all motorists in Louisiana must comply with at all times including, but not limited to:

• Motorists must operate, control, and use their vehicle reasonably and maintain a proper lookout for hazards which might pose an unreasonable risk of harm;

• Motorists must see which should be seen and observe all traffic signs;

• A driver has a duty to drive defensively from the time the driver witnesses a negligent operation of another vehicle, or notices other hazards;

• A motorist has a duty to keep attention focused on the roadway and not get distracted by the many things that could distract a person, and owes that duty to others in their vehicle as well as those in other vehicles on the roadway; and

• A motorist must exercise a greater degree of care in adverse conditions such as weather and darkness.

There are many factors that are considered when a legislature or court determines if a duty should exist, or does exist, in certain circumstances. Usually, those considerations include various moral, social, and economic factors, including the fairness of imposing liability, the economic impact on the defendant and on similarly situated parties, the need for an incentive to prevent future harm, the nature of defendant’s activity, the potential for an unmanageable flow of litigation, and the historical development of results from other similar cases.  In sum, the Court and legislature will determine if society as a whole deems a duty necessary for the situation and whether society would benefit from the creation and implementation of that same duty.

Once it is determined that the at-fault driver owed a duty, it must then be determined if the injury sustained fell within the scope of that duty because no rule of law protects every person from every possible harm. The law that creates the duty owed must have been designed to protect this type of plaintiff, from this harm, arising in this manner. While there is no particular rule that determines if the harm incurred falls within the scope of the duty owed, usually the proper analysis is to determine if the injury sustained from the particular accident circumstances, together with policies, was foreseeable. If the harm incurred cannot be reasonably foreseen or anticipated from the actions of the at-fault driver, and there is no ease of association between the risk of that injury and the legal duty the driver owed, then the injury does not fall within the scope of duty.

For example, imagine that Sue Doe is involved in an accident that was not her fault because John failed to yield to her right of way. Unfortunately, for Sue, at the time of the accident she was transporting poisonous snakes in her vehicle to study for a book she is writing. Sue receives no physical injury from the accident; however, the impact of the accident caused the snake cage to open, freeing all the snakes and before Sue can exit her vehicle, she is bitten by a highly poisonous snake and dies before the ambulance can reach her. Although John owed a duty to Sue to abide by all traffic signs and yield to her, Sue’s injury of death by snake bite would not fall under the scope of that duty because it is not reasonably foreseeable that Sue would have been transporting poisonous snakes, nor is death by snake bite easily associated as harm that could befall a person involved in a car accident. In this case, John would not be liable to Sue or her family for her death.

If a duty has been established and the injury that has been sustained falls within the scope of that duty, it must then be determined if the defendant breached the duty that he/she owed. Whether there was a breach of duty is a purely dependent upon the facts of the case. This element is usually the most focused upon and contested element of motor vehicle accident claim because this is where it is determined if the at-fault driver’s conduct was actually negligent. As previously discussed, in Louisiana all motorists must use such diligence and care in the operation of his/her vehicle. The level of diligence and care that is exercised must be appropriate for the circumstances. The greater the danger, the greater the degree of care required. So, if a motorist fails to exercise the proper amount of care necessary for the circumstances, that motorist is negligent. The inquiry then becomes how much care is required for the circumstance in question?

Finally, the last element of the duty risk analysis to determine if liability can be imposed for negligence is damages. Damages refer to any and all harm that you have incurred from an accident, including property and injury claims, to which you have a right to recover for.  However, determining damages requires a much more in depth study, which will be discussed in later, separate blog post.

If you would like more information about your auto accident personal injury case, contact us.  Our attorney and staff help people like you every day, and we welcome your call.

Parker Layrisson Law Firm

Parker Layrisson Law Firm

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