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Overview of car and vehicle accident liability

Frequently in car and vehicle accident cases the court will apportion fault between the parties involved. In some cases, the court may find that one party was entirely at fault. In other cases, the court may rule the parties were equally at fault. And in other cases, the court may apportion fault differently, say 60:40 or 80:20 so that one party bears most, but not all, of the blame.

Road user's duty of care

Anyone who uses the roads has a basic duty of care to avoid causing injury to others. This is not an unlimited duty of care. It does not mean that each user must absolutely guarantee the safety of all other road users, but it does mean that a road user must take care to prevent injuries that one could reasonably anticipate arising from the road user's actions or inaction.

When someone is injured by a driver, the injured person may look to the Highway Code and statutory law governing road use in order to make a claim that the driver was in breach of his duty of care to the injured person. For example, if the driver was speeding, using a mobile phone or under the influence of alcohol when his vehicle struck the injured person's car, then the injured person probably has a good basis for claiming that the driver caused the accident by failing to exercise due care.

A driver's breach of statutory law or the Highway Code does not, however, mean that the driver is entirely responsible for any accident that occurs. The injured person may also have been in breach of his duty of care, and therefore partly at fault for the accident on the grounds of contributory negligence .

Contributory negligence

A person who uses the road (as a driver, passenger, pedestrian, or otherwise) has a duty to take care of his own safety and to take reasonable precautions when he is aware, or should be aware, of the risk of injury. So, for example, a passenger should fasten his seatbelt, and a pedestrian should not dart into a busy road without looking.

When apportioning fault in a car accident, a court will consider the claimant's behaviour as well as that of the defendant. If the claimant was an adult pedestrian who ran into a busy road from between two parked cars, the court will almost certainly conclude that the claimant is partially at fault for the accident -- even if the driver was speeding when the accident happened.

Insurance

The Road Traffic Act 1988 requires all drivers to have, at a minimum, insurance that covers third parties (in other words, people other than the driver himself) who are injured and/or suffer property damage in an accident with the driver. Some drivers will carry additional insurance -- usually known as "comprehensive" car insurance -- that covers injuries to them and damage to their own vehicle.

When a claimant is looking to issue proceedings for injuries or property damage caused by another driver, the claimant's solicitor should give notice to the defendant's insurer under section 151 of the Road Traffic Act 1988. This is a provision that is designed to prevent the insurer from refusing to pay out on the insurance policy on the grounds that the driver it insured was in breach of the terms of the insurance policy (for instance, by operating the vehicle under the influence of alcohol when the accident occurred).

Where a road accident claim leads to court proceedings, the parties' insurers will usually have some control over the conduct of the proceedings. Frequently, car insurance policies give the insurer the ability to defend a claim, even where its customer, the individual driver, is identified as defendant.

Uninsured motorists

Certainly, problems can arise when a person is injured by a driver who does not have insurance or a hit-and-run driver. In these cases, the Motor Insurers' Bureau, in effect, acts as guarantor -- paying out damages to the injured person, but retaining the right to recover them from the uninsured driver.

The Motor Insurers' Bureau maintains a fund for the purpose of paying such claims, and the money for that fund is provided by ordinary car insurance providers (who, in turn, get the money from the car insurance premiums that their customers pay). The Road Traffic Act 1988 requires all UK car insurers to participate in and fund the Motor Insurers' Bureau.

It is not particularly easy to present a claim. The Bureau's rules are rather strict and a claimant may well be denied compensation for a relatively minor error in attempting to comply with the applicable rules.

And just like any ordinary car insurer, the Motor Insurers' Bureau will investigate a claim and seek to minimise its financial exposure -- typically on the grounds that the claimant was contributorially negligent.

Getting Help

A person who is injured in a car or other vehicle accident should get advice from an experienced solicitor who specialises in personal injury law. This is particularly true where the driver responsible for the accident is uninsured or cannot be traced -- as that will mean that the Motor Insurers' Bureau will need to be involved.

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