I got into an accident with a larger vehicle and my car was damaged a lot more. Who is at fault?

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Question:

I was speeding—not a lot, just 10 miles over the limit. A contractor went through a stop sign and I T-boned their truck. Even though I hit him, his truck was so much bigger than my car, that I was hurt worse and suffered more car damage. My wife is panicking, saying that the fact that I was speeding means I was at fault and we won’t be able to recover anything. Is she right?

 

Answer:

The law of auto accidents is state law—it’s not quite the same in NY as in NJ, CT, or PA, even though all those states border NY, for example. So without knowing your state, I can’t provide a definitive answer. However, unless you’re in one of a small handful of states, such as VA or MD, that still use the old idea of contributory negligence, you’re in a comparative negligence state. That means that your fault will reduce the amount of your recovery, but won’t necessarily prevent you from recovering something.

Since you need to discuss comparative negligence in the context of a state, we’ll use NY as an example—however, you can easily look up the rules for your own state under Section 1411 of the New York code.

“Culpable conduct” means fault—the degree to which you are in the wrong. What happens is that if you sue (or are sued), the court compares the degree of fault of each person who contributed to the accident. Let’s say that it finds that speeding makes you 25% at fault, but going through a stop sign makes the other person 75% at fault. In that case, if you sued him for, and would normally have won, $400,000, you will instead receive 25% less, or $300,000.

In NY, even if you were 90% at fault—even 99%--you could recover something: an amount equal to what you’d normally get times the degree to which you are not at fault. In some states, if you are more at fault than the other parties, you can’t recover anything (i.e. you have to 50% or less at fault). And there are a few states, like MD and VA, in which any fault can act to bar you from recovery in some cases. (Those are the contributory negligence states.) That’s why you need to look up the laws in your own state to really understand what you are facing.

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