CAR ACCIDENTS: INS AND OUTS OF LEGAL ISSUES AND INSURANCE

by Samuel Saks on Jan. 11, 2021

Accident & Injury Accident & Injury  Car Accident Accident & Injury  Wrongful Death 

Summary: A motor vehicle accident involves many areas of law, including tort law and insurance law. Arizona law is unique in many respects. Learn more about these issues in this article.

CAR ACCIDENTS: INS AND OUTS OF LEGAL ISSUES AND INSURANCE

Who is at Fault for the Accident?

Whether it involves a truck, a car, a bus, or a bicycle, if someone if two vehicles collide there is likely to be a dispute over who is at fault, i.e., who is legally responsible.  How do you know who is at fault for a car accident? 

Sometimes the answer seems obvious: you were rear-ended while at a stoplight.  The other driver was speeding or was drunk driving and was ticketed for a DUI.  While these may seem like obvious cases (and usually are), keep in mind that the other driver may telling a different story to the police or his insurance company.  Arizona law recognized the concept of “comparative fault” which means that both parties may be partially at fault for an accident.  For example, if the other driver was trying to make a left turn but you were speeding, the other driver might be deemed 80% at fault and you might be deemed 20% at fault. 

Common Driving Violations. 

If you’ve seen an Arizona crash report, section 9 lists citation charges (aka, driving infractions or tickets).   Here are some of the most common violations:

  • A.R.S. § 28-701: Speed greater than reasonable and prudent speed.  This statute requires: “A person shall not drive a vehicle on a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the circumstances, conditions and actual and potential hazards then existing. A person shall control the speed of a vehicle as necessary to avoid colliding with any object, person, vehicle or other conveyance on, entering or adjacent to the highway in compliance with legal requirements and the duty of all persons to exercise reasonable care for the protection of others.”

The same statute also prohibits you from driving too slow or impeding traffic:  “A person shall not drive a motor vehicle at a speed that is less than the speed that is reasonable and prudent under existing conditions unless the speed that is reasonable and prudent exceeds the maximum safe operating speed . . . .”

  • A.R.S. § 28-644: Failure to obey traffic control device (e.g., stop sign, stop light, yield sign, etc.). 
  • A.R.S. § 28-751: Improper turn.  Among other things, this statute provides that “[t]he driver of a vehicle intending to turn left shall approach the turn in the extreme left-hand lane lawfully available to traffic moving in the direction of travel of the vehicle. If practicable the driver shall make the left turn from the left of the center of the intersection and shall make the turn to the left lane immediately available for the driver's direction of traffic.”
  • A.R.S. § 28-771:  Rules at intersection.  Under this statute: “When two vehicles enter or approach an intersection from different streets or highways at approximately the same time, the driver of the vehicle on the left shall yield the right-of-way to the vehicle on the right. This subsection does not apply to vehicles approaching or entering an uncontrolled "T" intersection if the vehicle on the left is on a continuing street or highway and the vehicle on the right is on the terminating street or highway. The vehicle on the terminating street or highway shall yield to the vehicle on the continuing street or highway.”
  • A.R.S. § 28-1381 et seq.: Driving or actual physical control while under the influence (“DUI”).  This is the first in a series of statutes that relates to DUI, driving under the influence of intoxicants.
  • A.R.S. § 28-873: Improper stopping, standing or parking. This statute governs when and where you can and cannot stop your vehicle.

Police Reports and the Accident Information Exchange

A police report is an official record of the collision by the authorities.  You will not see a police report immediately after the accident.  Indeed, it could take several weeks or even months (in cases involving death or severe injury) for a police report to be issued.   On scene, police officers typically issue an Accident Information Exchange, which is a summary of the drivers and vehicles involved in the crash.  This document is important.  First, it lists the police report number, which is the same number that will be used to obtain the final police report once it is issued.   Second, the form lists the insurance information of the drivers.  You may need this information to pursue a claim for property damages or personal injury.  Finally, the Accident Information Exchange may give an indication about who the police officers determined to be at fault for the collision.  Typically, the driver listed as “Unit 1” is the party at fault. 

Police may also issue a ticket based on some of the driving violations listed above.  Tickets don’t matter as much as you think, however.   The fact that a police officer decides to give a ticket to a driver or decides not to give anyone a ticket does not end the case.  The police officer has the right to determine which, if any, driver may have violated the traffic laws (found in Title 28 of the Arizona Revised Statutes).  But for the purposes of an insurance claim or accident case, this determination is not binding.  In other words, a judge or jury may decide that a ticketed driver did not cause the accident and is not responsible for any damages. 

Negligence Under Arizona Law

Tickets are issued by police officers and are handled by the governmental entities.  Whether or not a ticket was issued, a person may pursue a civil case for the damages or injuries sustained in the vehicle crash. These cases are known as “personal injury” claims.  In a personal injury case involving an accident the key legal issue is negligence.  The law of negligence is complicated and full of nuance.  Put simply, negligence simply means the failure to act as a reasonable person should under the unique circumstances of the case, and those actions lead to injury or damages.  As you may have noticed, this is a vague standard and leaves a lot of room for insurance adjusters (and attorneys) to argue. 

 

In the context of driving, everyone operating a motor vehicle has a legal duty to drive safely and follow the rules of the road.  Even once you prove that someone acted negligently, you still have to prove that their negligent actions caused damage or injury.  This is known as “causation.”  Causation is more complicated than it sounds.  For example, if you negligently crashed into someone who had a heart condition, your negligent act did not cause or give rise to that person’s heart condition.  It may have made things worse, but you can’t be held responsible for the condition in the first place.  Similarly, if the damage or injury was inevitable no matter what you did, your negligence may not be considered the true cause. 

Will My Car Insurance Rates Go Up?

            Under Arizona law, if you have not caused or significantly contributed to the cause of an accident, your car insurance rates or premiums cannot be raised.  Specifically, A.R.S. § 20-263 provides: “ No insurer shall increase the motor vehicle insurance premium of an insured as a result of an accident not caused or significantly contributed to by the actions of the insured. Any insurer which increases the premium as a result of accident involvement shall notify the insured of the reason for such increase.”

Presented by Sam Saks, Esq., 480-277-6310; sam@guidant.law.  Sam is the founder of Legal Aid of Arizona and a partner at the law firm of Guidant Law PLC.  He has represented both plaintiffs and defendants in cases involving insurance coverage, negligence, and substantial damages.

This article is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or establish an attorney/client relationship. 

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