Lately, a lot of people have been suggesting to me that if someone violates a law it means they were negligent and so financially responsible if a third party is injured. I have tried to explain to these people that violating a law does not necessarily mean you were negligent, and it does not make you responsible for an injury. It may. It could even help prove negligence. Or the legal violation may be completely irrelevant.
Hypo One – Red Light, Unlawful Driver
As an example, I am going to use hypothetical car accident. In that car accident, we have person A who is an unlicensed, uninsured driver, and person B, who is both licensed and insured.
Person B runs a red light and t-bones person A. There is no doubt at all, that person B is responsible. Person A did nothing wrong to cause the accident, he was just driving along, went through a green light, and B hit him.
The fact that person B is both licensed and insured does not stop him from being liable for the fact that he ran the red light and hit A. The fact that person A has no license or insurance does not all of a sudden make him legally negligent and responsible for the accident.
Person B is likely to receive a ticket for running a red light. That ticket will help person A when he sues person B. Person A is likely to receive a citation for driving without a license and insurance. Those violations of the law, do not make person A responsible for the accident. Person A is not the negligent party. Person A should not have been driving with no license and no insurance. But person A cannot be held responsible for an accident he did not cause, simply because he broke two other laws.
Hypo 2 Speeding, Side Swipe
Let’s look now at person C and person D.
Person C is driving down the road about 5 miles per hour over the speed limit. Person C is breaking the law. Person D changes lanes without looking and hits person C. In this case, the fact that Person C was speeding had nothing to do with the accident. Again, even though person C was breaking the law, he was not the cause of the accident and so was not negligent. The fact C was speeding does not change the reality of what happened. Person D hit person C because he was careless, not because person C was speeding.
Now, if we change the hypo a bit, and make it so that person C was going 20 miles per hour over the speed limit, and person D looked and thought he had time to change lanes, but didn’t, simply because person C was going so fast, well we have a different situation.
Now we would have to analyze whether D did properly change lanes and whether person C’s speeding made what would have been a safe lane change, had C been driving properly, unsafe. We could end up having two responsible drivers. Or we could end up having only one responsible person. Why? Because when someone is driving at an unsafe speed, people who are driving around them may not realize how quickly they will come up on them.
There are times when violating the law can be strong evidence of negligence. But in most cases, we cannot assume that the violation is such proof. Your lawyer would still have to prove the underlying case. And if the legal violation is completely irrelevant to why the accident occurred, that information wouldn’t even be allowed before a jury.