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What is the difference between an “accident” and “negligence” under California Law?

As a California personal injury attorney, the most frequent question I get asked by clients who are injured is, “do I have a case?”  From a legal standpoint, what they are really asking is whether their injury was simply “accidental” or whether the incident can be attributed to the negligence of another person or business entity.

Webster’s Dictionary defines an “accident” as follows: an “unfortunate happening” that occurs “unintentionally” and results in “harm, injury, damage or loss.”  By contrast, “negligence” as defined by most jurisdictions in the United States including California, is the lack of “ordinary care” or “skill” in the “management of person or property” that caused injury or harm to another person. (See: California Civil Code §1714).

accident law in California

In other words, there are times when things just happen that are beyond anyone’s control and are true “accidental” occurrences.  There are also times when harming another person is intentional such as an assault and battery or defrauding someone (a different topic for a different day).  More often than not, however, are incidents that result from a lack of reasonable care on the part of some person.  Probably the most common example would be an auto accident claim.  When two cars collide into each other on the freeway, a reasonable person must look at what caused the incident to determine if there was negligence involved.  If there are three cars in the pile up and the first vehicle was traveling a lawful and reasonable speed for conditions and was rear ended vehicle two who was pushed into vehicle two by vehicle three behind him, one must determine whether the drivers of vehicles 1, 2 and/or 3 were “negligent” in the operation of their motor vehicle in order to determine whether any other drivers or passengers may be entitled to compensation against that person.  Sometimes this analysis is not complicated.  For example, if driver three was driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time, they intentionally chose to get behind the wheel in an impaired state and should be held at fault.  Most of the time, though, the analysis is a little more difficult.  Questions need to be asked like the following: (1) Who hit whom first?; (2) Did vehicle 1 make a sudden and unexpected stop?; (3) Did vehicle two overreact or did vehicles 2 and/or 3 collide with the rear of vehicle 1 because they were following too closely or traveling at an unsafe speed for road conditions?; (4) Was it reasonable to expect vehicle two or three to be able to stop in time?; (5) could it be considered a “lack of ordinary care” for vehicle 2 to collide with vehicle one or was the “lack of due care” really on the part of driver number 3, who pushed driver two’s car into driver one?

Why is it important to consult and retain a personal injury attorney to determine if your injury was “accidental” or due to “negligence”?

Whether there is legal liability for any injury-causing incident is based upon a lot of factors.  In California auto accident claims, the Cal. Vehicle Code most often comes into play to establish what is a reasonable duty on the part of the motor vehicle operator.  There are also laws based upon cases that have been decided by the various appellate divisions of the California Superior Court system including the Supreme Court of California that establish the reasonable guidelines to which persons can be held.  If an incident involves an employee driving on behalf of a company employer, there are yet another set of standards that apply to determine if the employer can be held legally liable for the action or inaction of their driver.   California is also a comparative negligence state which means that there can be a lack of due care on the part of more than one person and even some fault on the person making the claim, which may not negate that person’s ability to recover monetary damages for medical bill, lost income, pain and suffering and other harm.  All of these issues need to be carefully analyzed by a competent injury lawyer.


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