Frequently Asked Questions - What Makes a Driver Negligent in a Florida Accident?
The legal definition of negligence in Florida is “the failure to use reasonable care, which is the care that a reasonably careful person would use under like circumstances. Negligence is doing something that a reasonably careful person would not do under like circumstances or failing to do something that a reasonably careful person would do under like circumstances”. In other words, a person’s conduct is evaluated by comparing said person’s actions to the actions of a person engaging in the same activity who is performing said activity in a careful manner. In addition, a person can be negligent by failing to take action he or she should have taken.
The most common example is a rear end automobile collision. Because rear end collisions are nearly universally the fault of the rear driver, Florida Law imposes a legal presumption of negligence on all drivers who cause rear end collisions. Connecting this concept to the definition of automobile negligence, Florida Law recognizes that drivers who cause rear end collisions were not driving in a reasonably careful manner. In addition, drivers who cause rear end collisions failed to pay adequate attention, which a reasonable careful driver would have done under the same circumstances. There is a caveat to the rear end presumption of negligence. If the front vehicle stopped suddenly, with no warning, in a location where the rear driver would not have expected a sudden stop, the presumption of negligence comes into question. Attorneys call this the “sudden stop” defense.
However, for all automobile crashes other than rear end collisions, the general definitions above are applicable. In some instances, a driver’s negligence is obvious, such as a vehicle running a red light where a red light camera captures the event on video. In other instances, there are eye witnesses who attest to the actions of the drivers, and again the negligence becomes apparent. However, in some crashes, due to conflicting accounts by drivers and witnesses, an accident reconstruction expert is required to analyze all details of the crash, including the speed of all involved vehicles, the physical damage to the vehicles, physical evidence on the roadway, and statements from any drivers or witnesses. By analyzing all these factors, an accident reconstruction expert can piece together the events and determine which person or people were negligent.
The determination of negligence does not begin and end with identifying a negligent party. Under Florida Law, the doctrine of comparative negligence is the legal standard. Comparative negligence is the determination of how negligent a person or multiple people acted in the course of a crash. For instance, in our rear end collision example, the rear driver is presumed to be 100% negligent. But what happens in a situation where a driver passes through a red light, but the other driver recognizes this and has an opportunity to take evasive action and either avoid the crash all together or lessen the impact through defensive actions? A jury considering that type of scenario would be required to determine if both drivers shared responsibility, and if so the jury would be required to apportion a specific percentage of negligence to each party. In this example, a jury may find the driver who passed through the red light to be 90% negligent and they may simultaneously find the driver with the right of way to be 10% negligent for failing to take reasonable actions to either avoid the crash all together or lessen the impact. This analysis would use the portion of the negligence definition above that discusses negligence in terms of failing to act in a reasonable manner.
In some states other than Florida, states apply the doctrine of contributory negligence instead of comparative negligence. In a contributory negligence jurisdiction, if any party is 1% negligent, that party cannot maintain a lawsuit against any other negligent parties. As you can imagine, following this doctrine can lead to highly unfair results. That is why states like Florida have steered away from contributory negligence and instead followed comparative negligence, so that any involved driver will be responsible only for the injurie or damages caused by his or her proportional negligence.
Some driving actions rise to a higher level than ordinary negligence, such as when a driver is impaired by alcohol or drugs while operating his or her vehicle, and in the course of operating the vehicle under the influence she causes a crash. Or when a driver is racing with another vehicle and in the course of this activity, he causes a crash. Both of these driver actions are decisions the drivers made, and they involve what we call reckless conduct, which is level above negligence. These actions subject such drivers to criminal prosecution in addition to their liability in civil actions for negligence. The effect of these types of drivers’ actions can be extremely inflammatory to juries in civil cases, and for that reason, many attorneys representing drivers who are accused of reckless activities will concede their clients were negligent so that a jury will not hear the specific circumstances of how they caused the crash. Another avenue for trial attorneys is to petition the court to find the driver was negligent as a matter of law based on the fact the person was impaired or participating in dangerous conduct such as racing.
Finally, automobile negligence can manifest itself in the negligent maintenance of a vehicle. By driving a vehicle on public roads without being reasonably certain the vehicle is mechanically safe, if there is a system failure due to lack of maintenance, and that failure causes a crash, the vehicle owner may be found negligent. The most common example is operating a vehicle with dangerously low tire tread. By operating a vehicle with unacceptable tire tread on public roadways, the operator and owner of the vehicle are putting the public at risk should the tire fail on a highway or city street. This is another example of failing to do something a reasonably careful person would do under like circumstances. For these reasons, it is critical to regularly service your vehicle including the brakes, tires, seatbelts, and all other vehicle systems that can affect the safety of the vehicle on the public roads.