Determining Fault in a NJ Car Accident (and Why It’s Important)
In New Jersey, the determination of who was at fault for your car accident will play an important role in your ability to recover full and fair compensation. For this reason, you should understand how insurance companies and juries determine fault. You should also realize that you can take steps after a crash that can help with this determination.
Why Do You Need to Prove Fault After a Crash?
If you get into a car accident in New Jersey, you typically file a Personal Injury Protection (PIP) claim with your own auto insurance provider. PIP provides coverage – up to the limits of your policy – for your medical expenses. You can also choose to buy PIP coverage for your other losses and expenses, including:
- Loss of wages due to your accident-related injuries
- Services that you would perform yourself if not for your injuries such as caring for your children or mowing the lawn
- Death benefits and funeral expenses (if you lose a loved one).
You can receive PIP benefits regardless of who was at fault in your auto accident. However, if you wish to recover compensation beyond what PIP provides, you would need to establish the fault of another party.
Keep in mind: You can always sue another party for economic damages such as past and future medical expenses and loss of income. However, your ability to sue for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering will depend on the type of auto insurance policy you have.
If you have a Basic policy, you will have a limited right to sue. In other words, you cannot file a claim against another party for non-economic damages unless your case involves one of the following:
- Loss of a body part
- Significant scarring or disfigurement
- Displaced fracture
- Loss of a fetus
- Permanent injury that has not healed to function normally
- Death of a loved one.
Generally, a herniated disc in the neck or back is enough to break the threshold. People refer to this requirement as the “serious injury threshold” or “verbal threshold.” If you have a Standard policy, you can choose either a limited right to sue or an unlimited right to sue. If you choose the unlimited right to sue, or “No Limit on Lawsuit” option, you can sue for non-economic damages regardless of the type of injuries you suffer.
The allocation of fault could also be a critical factor in your car accident claim. New Jersey follows a modified comparative fault scheme. If you are more than 50 percent at fault for your crash, you cannot recover any damages. If you are less than 50 percent at fault, then you can recover compensation. However, your recovery gets reduced in proportion to your degree of fault. For instance, if you are 20 percent at fault, your total recovery would be reduced by 20 percent.
How Is Fault Determined in Car Accidents in New Jersey?
So, as you can see, the determination of fault could make a significant difference in the amount you recover after a car accident in New Jersey. For this reason, you should never simply accept an insurance company’s conclusions when it comes to fault.
Insurance companies want to protect their revenue. They lose revenue when they pay claims. So, in many cases, an insurance company will deny that the driver it insures was at fault, or it may try to pin fault on the other driver. The insurer’s goal is to pay nothing or as little as possible.
Your lawyer, however, will protect your rights by conducting an independent investigation of your crash. The lawyer’s determination may lead to a much different determination of who was at fault in your crash. Your lawyer can present this determination during settlement talks or present it to a jury at trial if the insurer fails to agree to a settlement.
A thorough investigation of a car accident may include gathering and collecting evidence such as:
- Photos of the accident scene and vehicles involved in the crash
- Police report
- Statements by eyewitnesses, including passengers and bystanders
- Red light camera footage or surveillance camera footage
- Electronic data recorder (or “black box”) information
- Breath, blood or urine test results for alcohol or drugs
- Cell phone records.
An accident reconstruction expert can examine this evidence and arrive at a determination of fault. The expert may prepare a report, which your lawyer would present to the insurance company as part of a settlement demand. If the insurance company refuses to agree to settle a claim, the expert may end up testifying before a jury.
Under New Jersey law, proof that a driver engaged in certain types of misconduct can establish fault as a matter of law. People refer to this rule as negligence per se. For instance, evidence that a driver sped or drove drunk at the time of a collision would create a presumption of fault.
In some cases, another driver’s negligence does not lead to a crash. Instead, fault lies with the manufacturer of a defective motor vehicle or vehicle part, or it lies with a government agency that failed to properly design and/or maintain a road. A mechanic who made shoddy repairs could also be at fault in a crash.
An Experienced New Jersey Car Accident Lawyer Can Help
If you are involved in a crash, you can help with the determination of fault. For instance, if your condition allows, you can take photos at the crash scene and gather contact information of eyewitnesses. This information will help your lawyer to conduct an investigation. Additionally, you should take a few moments to write down what you recall about the accident while those details are still fresh in your memory.
The bottom line: Determination of fault is important in a New Jersey car accident lawsuit. Don’t leave that determination to an insurance company. Instead, work with an experienced auto accident attorney who will get the facts straight and ensure that your story gets told.
To learn more, please feel free to contact Davis, Saperstein & Salomon, P.C. We can provide a timely, free consultation about your case.