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Motor Vehicle Accidents - An Introduction

Motor vehicle accidents are among the most common personal injury cases, and because they fall under the umbrella of personal injury, they are subject to many of the same legal assumptions and rules.

For a general introduction to personal injury law in California, we encourage you to take a look at our article on the basics of personal injury here.

Fault and Liability

We’ll begin our exploration of the law of motor vehicle accidents by considering the variety of personal injury legal standards and liability levels in the context of motor vehicle accidents. Which of the following legal standards applies depends on the specific factual circumstances of the accident.

In other words – what do you need to prove to win your case?

Strict Liability

Strict liability is, technically speaking, the easiest legal standard for the plaintiff. In a strict liability case, the plaintiff only has to prove that the at-fault party caused his or her injuries. In reality, however, most strict liability cases are brought against companies with enormous resources dedicated to fighting such cases. As such, strict liability cases may present their own unique strategic difficulties. You’ll want the assistance of an attorney who is well qualified, experienced, and successful in the field of personal injury.

In the context of motor vehicle accidents, strict liability generally applies in two situations: 1) when one of the vehicles was engaged in ultrahazardous activities, and 2) when product liability issues are involved.

An ultrahazardous activity is an abnormally dangerous activity that poses a high risk of harm to others. It is up to the courts to determine what constitutes an ultrahazardous activity (and the courts will balance a number of different factors, including the risk of harm presented by the activity, the ease of limiting the risk of harm, and the positive value created by the ultrahazardous activity). Imagine a situation in which a truck is transporting extremely flammable materials, and you are involved in an accident with said truck. The flammable materials leak out of the truck and, as expected, are set aflame, and those flames subsequently injure you. In all likelihood, the courts will find that the truck was engaged in ultrahazardous activity (transportation of a dangerously flammable material) and if you can prove that the ultrahazardous material’s flames caused your burn injuries – and not other flames – then you will be able to rely on the strict liability standard.

  • It is worth noting that it is not enough to show that the accident involved a vehicle engaged in ultrahazardous activity. Your injuries must have been caused by the introduction of this abnormally dangerous hazard.

Product liability issues are not uncommon in the area of motor vehicle accident law. Many accidents may be a result of a flaw in the design of a vehicle, or even a manufacturing defect in a particular batch of cars. A great deal of media attention has been directed at various car manufacturers who have been forced to recall batches of cars and trucks due to brake defects and other issues.

  • The standard for product liability appears deceptively simple. The plaintiff must prove that: 1) the product was defective in manufacture or design; and 2) that the defect was the substantial case of plaintiff’s injury.

Both elements – proving that the product was defective, and proving that the defect, and not some other aspect of the accident, caused the plaintiff’s injuries – will likely be defended against mercilessly. Bringing a product liability case against a major automobile manufacturer is an immensely difficult, costly, and lengthy undertaking, as automobile manufacturers have the resources, willpower, and many decades of experience in defending against such claims, thus forcing the plaintiff’s hand. Again, it must be reiterated that your choice of attorney is crucial at this stage. Depending on the defect that you are alleging, there may an existing or upcoming class action litigation involving other plaintiffs with similar issues, to which you’ll want to join your own case. As such, you must not only select a well qualified, experienced, and successful personal injury attorney, but you must do so quickly so that your attorney can assist you in bringing your case on time (and/or joining your case to a class action suit in a timely fashion).

Intentional Tort

In the realm of motor vehicle accidents, intentional torts are in fact quite rare. Intentional tort applies when the at-fault party actually intends to cause harm to the plaintiff. For a plaintiff to win an intentional tort case, he or she would have to successfully prove that: 1) the at-fault party intentionally acted in a manner such that injury was likely to occur; and 2) the plaintiff suffered harm as a result. To better understand intentional tort, just remember that the mens rea, or mindset, of the at-fault party in an intentional tort case must be that of ‘wanting’ to cause harm to the plaintiff.

- In a motor vehicle case, the intentional tort analysis may apply if the at-fault party sees plaintiff driving slowly in front of them, becomes enraged at the slow driving of plaintiff, and rams into the back of plaintiff intentionally in a fit of road rage.


Negligence covers a much wider array of real-world motor vehicle accidents than either strict liability or intentional tort. To prove negligence, the plaintiff must show that: 1) the at-fault party owed a duty of care to plaintiff; 2) the at-fault party breached his or her duty of care; and 3) the at-fault party’s breach substantially caused plaintiff’s injuries.

In the context of motor vehicle accidents, negligence may cover a variety of possible behaviors, such as a simple driving mistake (forgetting to signal when lane-shifting on the highway), or even certain reckless behaviors, such as speeding.
What about drunk driving? Drunk drivers who injure others may not only be criminally liable, but also civilly liable – in other words, if you are the victim of a drunk driver, you may be entitled to monetary damages as a result. Generally, drunk drivers who get into accidents qualify under negligence per se, which is to say that they are negligent by virtue of driving drunk. As such, as the victim of a drunk driver, you do not have to prove that the drunk driver owed you a duty of care, or that the drunk driver breached their duty of care to you. They are already negligent. All you must prove is that they were under the influence while operating a vehicle, and, as a result, you suffered injuries.

  • How does negligence per se work, in the legal sense, for drunk drivers? California Evidence Code section 669 covers negligence per se. In section 669, negligence per se occurs when: 1) a law has been violated; 2) the injuries-at-issue were caused by said violation; and 3) the law that was violated was intended to protect against the injuries that occurred. In drunk driving cases, California Vehicle Code section 23152a – among other laws prohibiting driving while under the influence – is frequently cited.

Vicarious Liability – Is Anyone Besides the Driver at Fault?

There are several theories under which a third party – basically, someone who is not the driver – can be held liable for injuries in a motor vehicle accident. Before we go further, however, consider this: why is it useful to be able to hold another person liable for the accident?

In many cases, the driver of the vehicle may not actually have the funds necessary to make the victim whole. For example, if a negligent driver is uninsured and has a low net worth, then you could end up with a case worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even millions of dollars, but no way to recover the amount that you are actually entitled to. If, however, the negligent driver was working when he caused the accident, or perhaps his wealthier friend/family member gave him permission to use the vehicle, then you might be able to sue that third party – the employer, family member, friend, etc. – for the amount that you are entitled to.

1) Permissive Use

Under permissive use, as enshrined in California Vehicle Code section 17150, the owner of a vehicle may be found liable for any and all injuries caused by negligent use of their vehicle, so long as the owner gave their permission for the driver to use the vehicle.

Importantly, permissive use has a significant damages limitation under California Vehicle Code section 17151(a) – even if you are able to prove that the owner gave permissive use of their vehicle to the negligent driver, you cannot recover more than $35,000 from the owner.

2) Vicarious Liability

Unlike permissive use, there are no damage limitations when suing under a theory of vicarious liability. Under vicarious liability, an employer can be held fully responsible for the injuries caused by the negligence of their employee, so long as the employee was acting in the course and scope of their employment. In motor vehicle accidents, vicarious liability tends to demand a very fact-specific argument. Your attorney must prove that the employee-driver was acting in the course and scope of their employment while driving the vehicle – perhaps, for example, the employee was driving to a nearby store to pick up some items for the office, at the request of their employer. Generally, the simplest vicarious liability claims are those involving employee-drivers whose job centers on the act of driving (long-haul truckers, mail delivery services, etc.).

3) Negligent Entrustment

For the victim of a motor vehicle accident, a finding of negligent entrustment can be a significant boon. In California, a negligent entrustment action can be brought against the owner of a vehicle as a separate action. In other words, if you have a negligent entrustment action, you can sue both the driver and the owner, separately, for two different causes of action. By doing so, you distribute the risk of litigation and thereby improve your odds of success. You also gain access to both the driver’s financial resources and the owner’s financial resources.

So what is negligent entrustment, exactly?

The owner of a vehicle may be found liable for negligent entrustment if he or she gives permission, or entrusts, their vehicle to a person who is unfit to operate that vehicle. Perhaps, for example, the owner is aware that the driver is an alcoholic and may drink and drive if given use of the vehicle. If the owner entrusts the vehicle to that person, then they may be found liable for negligent entrustment (assuming that the driver did, in fact, injure you). Negligent entrustment does not solely revolve around drunk driving history, however. Reckless driving history, physical or mental incapability, an unlicensed driver, a defective vehicle – all of these factors could play a role in determining whether the owner’s entrustment of the vehicle was negligent. As such, it is crucial that you seek the assistance of a skilled, experienced personal injury attorney who will effectively argue these factors in your favor.