In the 2017 movie Chappaquiddick, a discombobulated Edward Kennedy (Jason Clarke) informs his father that “there’s been an accident.” His characterization is both accurate and inaccurate.
Certainly, no driver ever intends to cause a car crash. That was certainly true of Senator Kennedy on that fateful night. So, a car crash is always “accidental” to the extent that it was “unintentional.”
But in another sense, car crashes are not accidents. The a-word can also imply an unavoidable incident that no one could have prevented. Acts of God, such as lightning strikes and wind gusts, cause a handful of Georgia car crashes. But the vast majority of these incidents involve some human error.
Occasionally, these errors are beyond the driver’s control. For example, a vehicle designer could place the gas tank outside the rear axle where it is prone to explosion upon impact (the Ford Pinto). Or, an airbag company could replace a reliable chemical propellant with a cheap substitute that is both ineffective and dangerous (Takata airbags).
Typically, the tortfeasor (negligent driver) is the responsible party. Depending on the type of negligence, victim/plaintiffs may have multiple legal options to obtain compensation for their injuries. This compensation usually includes money for both economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering. Additional punitive damages may be available as well, in some extreme cases.
All three types of negligence involve a poor decision at one point or another. Sometimes, that decision takes place before the tortfeasor gets behind the wheel. Arguably, behavioral negligence involves a conscious decision to place other people at risk.
Alcohol is perhaps the best example of behavioral negligence. Almost all drivers know that it is very dangerous to drink and drive. Alcohol is a depressant which slows reaction time. When people operate heavy equipment at high speeds (i.e. drive down the road), their motor skills need to be in peak condition. That’s especially true if driving conditions are less than ideal and many drunk driving collisions occur at night.
Alcohol has other effects as well. For example, this substance replaces sound judgement with a sense of euphoria. That effect makes people have fun at parties. But driving requires careful calculations based on the facts. People who have had anything to drink simply cannot perform this function.
In some jurisdictions, “drugged driving” is more of a problem than drunk driving. This aspect of behavioral negligence could involve:
- Cocaine, LSD, and other illegal street drugs,
- Oxycontin, Xanax, and other legal prescription drugs, or
- Nyquil, Unisom, and other over-the-counter sleep aids or cold remedies.
Once again, drivers make a conscious decision to drive while under the influence of these substances.
Fatigue is also common, and drowsiness is another form of behavioral negligence. Most people agree that driving while drowsy is dangerous, yet most people also admit that they have driven while dangerously fatigued.
Perhaps they do not understand how dangerous fatigue can be. Driving after eighteen consecutive awake hours is like driving with a .08 BAC.
Drugged driving and fatigued driving usually involve traditional negligence cases. The victim/plaintiff must establish a lack of care by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not). In Georgia, the standard is usually reasonable care. In some cases, such as commercial drivers, the standard may be higher.
Drunk driving cases, on the other hand, usually involve the negligence per se shortcut. In these cases, a statute, like the DUI law, sets the standard of care. Additionally, if a safety law violation substantially causes injury, the tortfeasor may be responsible for damages as a matter of law. So, negligence per se cases are rather easy to prove in court.
Some drivers make poor decisions when they get behind the wheel. Most operational negligence cases involve the negligence per se shortcut, since a vehicle code provision is involved. However, other operational negligence claims rely on a traditional theory. Some common operational negligence situations include:
- Speed: Excessive velocity increases the risk of a collision and the damages in a collision. Speed multiplies stopping distance. A car moving 60mph takes three times as long to stop as a vehicle travelling 30mph. Furthermore, according to Newton’s Second Law, velocity multiplies the force in a collision between two objects.
- Failure to Yield: Most FTY crashes are either intersection collisions or illegal turn/lane change collisions. These collisions usually involve another area of operational negligence as well, mostly inattentive driving.
- Distraction: Drivers are distracted if they take their eyes off the road, take their minds off driving, and/or take one hand off the wheel. Hand-held cellphones distract drivers in all three ways. Other sources include hands-free cell phones while driving, eating while driving, and talking to passengers while driving. All three of these activities force drivers to take their eyes off the road and take their minds off driving.
Speed and FTY crashes almost always involve vehicle code violations. Even if the tortfeasor did not receive a citation, this shortcut may still apply. Distracted driving may involve a violation of the broader cell phone law or possibly a lack of ordinary care.
The duty of reasonable care usually means adjusting one’s driving to account for adverse environmental conditions. For example, drivers should slow down when they sky is dark and steer more carefully when the road is wet. Other adverse environmental conditions include fog and ice. Icy roads are especially hazardous in Georgia, because many people are not used to driving in these conditions.
Some environmental negligence claims may be negligence per se claims. For example, Georgia’s speeding law states that the posted limit is the maximum speed “except when a special hazard exists that requires a lower speed.” So, in conditions like fog or rain, a tortfeasor could be travelling below the posted speed limit and still be speeding for negligence purposes.
However, most environmental negligence claims involve a lack of care. Therefore, pure environmental negligence claims are rather difficult to win in court.
Work with a Dedicated Attorney
Most car wrecks involve one or more types of driver negligence. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in Marietta, contact The Phillips Law Firm, L.L.C. We do not charge upfront legal fees in negligence cases.