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William E. Weiss
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Auto Accident Attorney Serving Throughout the Bay Area in San Francisco

Auto accidents are the most common type of personal injury cases filed with our courts. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, an auto accident occurs every ten seconds in the United States. Statistics show that in 2005 there were six million auto accidents in the United States, resulting in 43,443 deaths and 2,699,000 injuries. Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 3 and 33.

Frequently cited causes for auto accidents and car crashes include: inattentive or distracted drivers; drunk driving or drug or alcohol related crashes; and speeding or reckless driving. Other causes of auto accidents include defective products, such as defective tires or brakes, malfunctioning traffic signals, and improper design or maintenance of the roadway.

Most Accidents Caused by Negligence

Automobile accidents cases are generally decided using the law of negligence. Negligence is generally defined as the failure to use reasonable due care to avoid a foreseeable harm to a person, place or thing. A person who negligently operates a vehicle may be required to pay any damages caused by his or her negligence, either to person or property. Generally, people who operate automobiles must exercise “reasonable care under the circumstances.” Failure to use reasonable care is the basis in most lawsuits for an award of damages caused by an automobile accident.

Courts consider a number of factors in determining whether or not a driver was negligent. Examples of these factors include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Inattention to the actions of other drivers
  • Driving too fast or too slow
  • Disregarding weather, road conditions or traffic conditions
  • Failure to observe traffic signs or signals

Accidents Caused by Intentional or Reckless Conduct

Accidents may also be caused by intentional or reckless conduct by a driver. An example of an accident caused by intentional conduct of the driver would be a road-rage accident. An example of reckless conduct by a driver would be when a person drives unsafely, with willful and wanton disregard for the probability that their driving may cause an accident.
Another example of intentional or reckless conduct by a driver is driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Accidents Caused by Product Defects or Other Factors

Accidents may also be caused by factors that are completely unrelated to the conduct of a driver. For example, under the laws of product liability, an automobile manufacturer or parts supplier may be responsible for a defect in a vehicle, or a component of the vehicle. A products liability suit is a lawsuit brought against the seller of a product for selling a defective product that caused physical injury to a consumer or user.

Accidents may also be caused by other factors beyond the driver’s control. Some examples of these factors include:

  • Improper design or maintenance of the roadway
  • Malfunctioning traffic signals
  • Poor lighting
  • Failure to provide proper warning of construction or other road hazards
  • Trees, utility poles or other hazards that obscure a driver’s field of vision

Accidents Caused by Drunk Drivers

According to a 2005 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report, alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes kill someone every 31 minutes and nonfatally injure someone every two minutes. Unfortunately, drunk drivers can be uninsured or underinsured, and have few assets to pursue in a lawsuit. Under limited circumstances, it may be possible to seek recovery from the person who provided the alcohol to the driver. Under California law, a bar, liquor store or restaurant may be responsible for damages caused by a person’s drinking if it sold alcohol to an obviously intoxicated minor. Cal Bus & Prof Code § 25602.1

California law does not impose liability on social hosts who serve alcohol in a social setting, such as at a party or at their home. California also does not have a “dram shop act” (“dram” was once a common term for “liquor”); California law does not impose liability on those who sell alcohol to people of legal drinking age. Cal Bus & Prof Code § 25602

Seatbelt Issues in Automobile Accidents

California law requires drivers and passengers to wear a seatbelt Cal Veh Code § 27315.
If you are injured in an accident but were not wearing your seatbelt at the time of the collision, insurance companies and their defense attorneys will argue that you would not have been injured, or would have incurred a less serious injury, had you been wearing your seatbelt. In making this argument, the defense is asserting “comparative negligence”; that your own negligence in failing to wear a seatbelt contributed to, or caused your own injuries.

Since the most severe injuries in automobile accidents often occur when the injured party was not wearing a seatbelt, or was ejected from the vehicle following a collision, it is important for the plaintiff to show that the injuries were caused by the negligent driver, not by the injured person’s failure to wear a seatbelt. Accident reconstructionists and biomechanical engineers are often used as expert witnesses to demonstrate that serious injuries would still have occurred even if the injured party was wearing a seatbelt at the time of the collision.

Helpful Advice for Accident Victims

If you or a loved one have been involved in an auto accident:

  • Obtain medical treatment from a qualified physician or go to an emergency room as soon as possible.
  • Keep all medical appointments unless you have a documented reason for failing to keep the appointment. Insurance companies will sometimes attempt to use missed medical appointments as evidence of “failure to mitigate damages”, and will seek to reduce any compensation or settlement accordingly.
  • Keep accurate, detailed records of any time lost from work as a result of the accident, including the date and amount of time lost.
  • Keep records of any additional expenses you have incurred as a result of the accident, including receipts and proof of payment. You may wish to pay by check or credit card in order to have proof of payment.
  • Obtain photographs of the damage to your vehicle. It is important to obtain these photographs prior to sending the vehicle for repairs, to the insurance company for inspection, or to a salvage yard if the vehicle is a total loss.
  • Obtain photographs of the accident scene, capturing any skid marks, debris, traffic signs or signals, and the condition of the road.
  • Seek legal counsel immediately to preserve your legal rights. Legal representation is important to ensure that key evidence is properly obtained.

Insurance Information for Accident Victims

California law requires every owner or driver of a vehicle to provide evidence of “financial responsibility”, either through self-insurance or more commonly, through the maintenance of liability insurance Cal Veh Code § 16020. Liability insurance is designed to provide compensation to another person in the event that you cause an accident and are found to be liable for damages arising from the accident.

Pursuant to Cal Veh Code § 16056, California law requires the minimum amount of liability insurance coverage as follows:

  • $15,000 for bodily injury or death of one person in any one accident
  • $30,000 for bodily injury or death of two or more persons in any one accident, not to exceed the per-person limits above Cal Veh Code § 16056
  • $5,000 for damage to property of others in one accident

The foregoing represents the required minimum amount of liability insurance coverage required under California law. It is not uncommon for individuals to acquire higher amounts of liability insurance coverage to protect their personal assets in the event they are at fault in a serious accident. When purchasing auto insurance, a consumer may also elect to purchase other types of coverage in addition to liability insurance. Examples of additional types of coverage include:

  • Medical Payment Coverage: This type of insurance provides coverage for the insured driver and his or her passengers for payment for injuries sustained, regardless of the fault of the driver. This type of coverage is also commonly referred to as “med-pay” or “personal injury protection (PIP)”. The amount of med-pay benefits is determined by the policy limits stated in the insurance policy declarations sheet for the person who purchased the coverage.
  • Uninsured or Underinsured Motorist Coverage: These types of coverage protect you against a negligent defendant who does not have liability insurance coverage or has minimum coverage that is inadequate to fully compensate you for your injuries. In the event that you are involved in an accident with an uninsured but negligent individual, a claim would be made under your own uninsured motorist coverage. Your own insurance carrier would then have to pay any judgment which may be rendered, up to the limits of the policy which you purchased. If the person who caused the accident has liability insurance, but the policy limit of his or her liability insurance is less than the uninsured motorist coverage of your policy, and your damages exceed the limits of the other person’s liability coverage, an additional claim may be made under your own policy for underinsured motorist benefits.
  • Collision Coverage: Collision coverage is a type of voluntary coverage which provides for the repair or replacement of your own vehicle after an accident, regardless of whether or not you are at fault. This is differs from property liability insurance coverage discussed above. An individual who is not at fault in an accident may present a claim for the property damage under his or her own collision coverage or under the negligent defendant’s property damage liability insurance coverage. Collision coverage normally includes a deductible, whereas property damage liability insurance coverage does not. In an automobile accident case, after a claim has been paid under collision coverage, the insurance carrier who paid the claim may proceed against the property damage liability insurance carrier for the negligent defendant to recover the amount paid out. This process is called subrogation, and it has no effect upon recovery

Commonly Asked Questions After an Auto Accident

Can I decide whether my car is repaired or replaced?

The insurance company typically has the option of deciding whether to repair or replace your vehicle, depending on whether the cost of repairs would exceed the value of the vehicle. If the cost of repairs will exceed the vehicle’s value, the insurance company will declare the vehicle as a “total loss” and will purchase your car for its fair market value, as determined below.

How does the insurance company determine the value of my vehicle?

You are entitled to recover the “fair market value” or the “actual cash value” of your vehicle immediately before the accident. One common source used to estimate fair market value is the Kelley Blue Book. Other sources of information are the local newspaper or the Auto Trader, which may list the for-sale price of cars of the same make, model, and year as yours. If the vehicle is exotic or rare, an expert vehicle appraiser may be necessary to establish the value of your vehicle.

What if I owe more on my auto loan than the fair market value of my car?

Unfortunately, the insurance company is only obligated to pay you the fair market value of your car, even if the amount of your auto loan exceeds the fair market value of your car.

What if my vehicle had prior damage before the accident?
If your vehicle had some damage prior to the accident, it may be difficult to establish what portion of the damage is related to the accident itself. Mechanics and auto collision repair experts can assist in proving the age of the body damage or determining when a mechanical failure occurred. They can assist in establishing that the damage was caused by the accident.

What happens to the license and registration fees paid for the car?

You are entitled to be reimbursed for the prorated amount of the license and registration fees for the car that are unused. The insurance company should also reimburse you for tag transfer fees and, in some cases, a prorated amount of sales tax on the actual cash value of the car at the time of the accident.

Am I entitled to a rental car while my car is being repaired?

If you are at fault in causing the accident, or if it is unclear who is at fault, then you must either pay for the rental car yourself or seek coverage under your own insurance policy if rental coverage is available. Many insurance contracts do not provide for rental coverage, so you should contact your insurance agent to determine what coverage exists. If the other driver is at fault, you may demand that the insurance company for the person who caused the accident provide you with a rental car for the time needed to repair your vehicle. You may be required to pay the rental car bill first, with reimbursement coming from the insurance company later.

What type of rental car am I entitled to?

The insurance company must pay for the reasonable cost of a substitute vehicle. What qualifies as a “substitute vehicle” is often a source of dispute, but generally it is considered to be a vehicle of similar quality to your vehicle, within the confines of what is generally available for rent.

Resources on Vehicle Safety and Insurance

The following resources provide useful information regarding vehicle insurance, safety and other consumer information:

Federal Trade Commission Web site provides useful consumer information on purchasing, leasing, or renting vehicles: http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/topics/buying-owning-car

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety provides injury, collision & theft loss information on recent vehicle models: http://www.iihs.org/

Insurance Information Institute provides answers to consumer’s questions regarding insurance: http://www.iii.org/individuals/auto/

National Safety Council provides information on driver safety, including air bag and seat belt safety: http://www.nsc.org/safety_road/

Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Web site provides information on product recalls and safety news, as well as information on how to report an unsafe product http://www.cpsc.gov/

AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety provides the latest traffic safety news, driver education videos, and resources for both young and senior drivers. http://www.aaafoundation.org/home/

Kelley Blue Book provides a determination of “fair market value” for the replacement cost of a damaged vehicle. http://www.kbb.com/

Seek the Advice of an Experienced Personal Injury Attorney Immediately

Personal injury matters are extremely time-sensitive. It is important to act promptly to preserve evidence, investigate the cause of the accident, and to file a lawsuit prior to the deadline imposed by the statute of limitations. If you or a loved one have been involved in a collision, contact auto accident attorney William E. Weiss at (888) 622-7274 for a no cost, no obligation consultation.

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