“The economic cost of traffic crashes in Arizona is nearly $3 bil­lion per year.”
—Arizona Department of Transportation

Motor Vehicle Accidents

A terrible toll is taken each year in injuries and deaths caused by motor vehicle accidents. In Arizona, approximately 1,000 peo­ple lose their lives each year in traffic accidents. The economic cost of traffic crashes in Arizona is nearly $3 billion per year, according to a recent Arizona Department of Transportation report. Given these facts, it is hardly sur­prising that motor vehicle accidents comprise the single larg­est number of tort case filings in the Arizona Superior Court.

The law of negligence governs motor vehicle accident cases. This means that if a person involved in an accident failed to use reasonable care under the circumstances, that person is liable for the damages resulting from the accident.

A person who is injured in a motor vehicle accident is entitled to damages for pain and suffering, disability, perma­nent impairment, medical bills, lost wages, and property damage. The spouse of an injured party may be entitled to damages for loss of consortium, which is the loss of marital love, affection and services. If the traffic accident resulted in a death, the survivors of the person killed may bring an action for wrongful death. The amount of damages can be deter­mined by agreement between the parties or, if the parties are unable to reach agreement, by the court. By law, the amount must fairly compensate the injured party for his or her damages.

Motor vehicle accidents generally are investigated by the law enforcement agency having jurisdiction over the location. If the accident occurs within Arizona on an Interstate Highway or state route, the accident will be investigated by the Arizona Department of Public Safety. If the accident occurs on a surface street or road within a city, town or village, it will be investigated by the local municipality’s police agency. If the accident occurs on an Indian reservation, it will be investigated by the tribal police. If the accident occurs anywhere else in Arizona, it will be investigated by the Sheriff of the county in which it occurs.

Regardless of which agency conducts the accident investi­gation, the investigating officer will prepare a standard written report of the accident. The traffic accident report is a public record, and a copy of it may be obtained by any inter­ested person upon written request and the payment of a small fee (the amount of which varies among agencies). The traffic accident report may contain evidence of negligence on the part of one or more drivers involved in the accident.

The admission by a driver at the scene of the accident that he or she was at fault is admissible evidence in a civil action. The accident report may contain admissions of fault, as the investigating officer generally questions the drivers at the scene. The officer’s recorded personal observations concerning the accident—such as the length of skid marks and measure­ments of the intersection—are also admissible. However, the officer’s opinions and conclusions about the accident generally are inadmissible, as is evidence of a traffic citation.

The violation of a motor vehicle statute can amount to neg­ligence. This is called negligence per se. In Arizona, any of the following types of conduct while driving constitute negligence per se: excessive speed, driving while intoxicated, failure to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk, failure to yield the right-of-way, driving over the center line, failure to use high-beam headlights, and failing to signal a turn or suddenly decreasing speed.

Although violation of a motor vehicle statute can consti­tute negligence per se, the violation must be proved indepen­dently in a civil action by showing that the conduct occurred. The fact of a traffic citation or conviction is not admissible to prove the conduct or violation. In addition, a driver’s past driving record is not admissible to prove the driver’s negli­gence.

The laws regulating motor vehicles do not apply only to automobiles and trucks. Motorcycles are also vehicles, and bicycles are considered vehicles when operated on a roadway, shoulder or bike path. The rights and duties of pedestrians are also found, in part, in the motor vehicle statutes.

The negligence of the injured person may be asserted by the defendant (the driver being sued) to reduce the defen­dant’s liability. This concept is known as comparative negli­gence, and reflects the reality that vehicular accidents are not always caused by the sole fault of a single party. The injured party’s damages will be reduced by the percentage of that party’s fault.

Illustration: Car A fails to yield the right-of-way to Car B, and a collision ensues. However, Car B was exceeding the posted speed, and its speed contributed to the accident. If the driver of Car B was 25% at fault and is awarded damages in the amount of $10,000, the damage award will be reduced by 25%, to $7,500. This is how comparative negligence is applied in cases involving motor vehicle accidents.

In Arizona, a person injured in a motor vehicle accident may not recover damages for injuries which were avoidable by the use of a safety belt or, in the case of a motorcyclist, by the use of a safety helmet. The rationale behind this rule is that a person should not be permitted to recover damages for avoidable consequences.

In certain cases, a non-driver may be found liable for vehic­ular injuries. For instance, an employer can be held liable for the negligence of an employee. The employee must be acting within the course and scope of his or her employment for the employer to be liable, however. This is the doctrine of respon­deat superior.

Under the theory of negligent entrustment, the owner of a vehicle may be held liable for negligently entrusting the vehicle to another. The “family purpose doctrine” renders liable one who provides a vehicle to a child for operation by the child, even if the use was for the driver’s own pleasure or business. An owner might also be liable based on a statute for­bidding the owner to permit the operation of a vehicle which is in an unsafe condition.

Drivers who mix alcohol and gasoline may be liable for punitive damages in a civil action (after they serve their jail time for DUI). Punitive damages may be assessed against a drunk driver as punishment for outrageous conduct, such as where the level of the driver’s intoxication is particularly high. (A driver is presumed intoxicated if his or her blood alcohol level is tested at .08 or above.) Punitive damages may also be awarded against an employer whose employee caused an accident while intoxicated, under the doctrine of respondeat superior. Driving while intoxicated constitutes negligence per se.

Motor vehicle accidents are an unfortunate reality of our motorized society. A person involved in one should notify his insurance company immediately. Every auto policy requires the insured to promptly notify his insurance company of the accident and to cooperate in the investigation of the loss. Failure to comply with these requirements may result in a denial of coverage by the insurance company.

Generally, a lawsuit must be filed within two years from the date of the accident or the claim will be barred by the statute of limitations. There are shorter limitation periods and pre-litigation claim procedures in some cases, and legal counsel should be consulted as soon as possible after an accident to confirm the applicable limitations period and legal requirements.

The above article is an excerpt from Arizona Laws 101: A Handbook for Non-Lawyers, 2nd Edition (Fenestra Books, 2012), by Donald A. Loose, republished with the author’s permission. 

Disclaimer: Laws change constantly. Specific legal advice should be obtained regarding any legal matter. The information contained on this website does not constitute legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is created. 

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Don Loose Author
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Donald A. Loose is an Arizona attorney, and the author of Arizona Laws 101: A Handbook for Non-Lawyers, and Estate Planning in Arizona: What You Need to Know.  Mr. Loose is a regular guest on radio shows featuring local newsmaker interviews. He may be contacted at don@looselawgroup.com.