Periodically, there are terrible fatal crashes on our highways. You hope that you are never involved in them. As a lawyer who handles vehicle crashes, I encounter these cases periodically. I am working on a new case involving a drunk driver who killed his front passenger on a local highway after a night of drinking. The driver will likely go to jail for a decade or so.
How do these cases play out in the civil system? Well, first, in any fatality or near fatality there is a lot of police work done to document the aftermath of the crash. Someone may face significant jail time out of these incidents and hence documentation of what caused the crash is important. This is very helpful to me as a civil lawyer because there are lots of photos and measurements that eventually explain and document what happened. Often, the victims are either deceased or facing criminal charges. As a result, usually there will be no statements about what happened from the driver or passengers. Sometimes there will be statements found in the medical records at the hospital. But, usually the facts don’t lie and generally the cause of the crash can be pieced together.
I always have to evaluate whether there is a dram shop case or a vehicle underride situation or a roadway design defect.
Dram shop cases are lawsuits against bars or restaurants that overserve obviously intoxicated patrons who then crash their cars. These are tough cases that are often dependent upon good surveillance video or testimony from other people at the party or event.
Truck underride cases involve collisions in which a car slides under the body of a truck—such as a tractor-trailer or single-unit truck—due to the height difference between the vehicles. NHTSA categorizes a crash in which any portion of a passenger vehicle slides under the body of a larger truck or trailer as an underride crash. In other instances, the striking vehicle may pass completely under the struck vehicle and exit the other side, shearing off the roof of the striking vehicle. These underride crashes can lead to severe injuries or fatalities. There has been a significant push to improve truck safety around vehicles by putting cages or other barriers to prevent underriding.
Roadway design defect cases are less common on highways and more common on local roadways with intersections or vehicles in close proximity to each other causing near misses etc. Sometimes, wrong way car crashes are due to design defects but they also usually involve alcohol.
Editor’s NOte: Good article on Pro Publica regarding NHTSA’s role.