Car accidents in Missouri can lead to a range of problems and complications for injured drivers, passengers, bystanders, and the driver at fault. Missouri car accident law surrounding motor vehicle accidents can be very complex, leading to confusion as to how the issues stemming from the accident may be resolved, and leading to enormous stress on behalf of victims of car accidents in Missouri.
The Role of Insurance After an Accident
In Missouri, all drivers are required to carry auto insurance. This means that Missouri motor vehicle accidents are initially dealt with via insurance claims through insurance companies. For example, if you are struck by another driver who is thought to be at fault for the accident, you and the at-fault driver will file claims with their respective insurance companies regarding what occurred. The insurance companies will then negotiate between themselves to attribute fault in the accident, and determine which insurer will be responsible for what damages. Litigation can result in several ways: for example, if you are unsatisfied with the amount of money insurance is paying, if you disagree with the apportionment of fault, if the opposing insurance party disagrees as to the amount of injuries or apportionment of fault, if the amount of the injuries exceeds the policy limits for either driver, if one or both of the drivers did not carry insurance, and so on. Insurance companies will often retain an attorney who will represent their interests on the insured’s behalf at litigation, however, it is extremely important to understand that the insurance company’s lawyer’s interest may be averse to yours. For example, it is almost always in the insurance company’s interest to pay you the minimum amount required out of their own policy, even though, quite frequently, this amount is not sufficient to substantiate the injuries suffered in an accident.
Complications arise when the driver that hit you is not insured, is not adequately insured or, in the case of a hit-and-run accident, is unknown. Many drivers have uninsured motorist coverage on their own auto insurance policy—this is a common part of most auto insurance policies in Missouri, though it is not legally mandated here. If you have such coverage under your policy, you will be able to make a claim with through your own policy for your damages, subject to the limits of that policy, and also subject to your deductible. This is often called a “first party” underinsured (or uninsured) claim, sometimes abbreviated to a “UIM” or “UM” claim. Many underinsured motorist policies also cover members of a household, sometimes even if they are not listed explicitly on the policy (for example, when a spouse or a child who is using the car and is struck by an uninsured motorist), or passengers in a vehicle that the injured driver was driving.
Pursuing a so-called UIM or UM claim can be very complex and, accordingly, quite stressful. For example, consider a case in which you have sustained $100,000 of damages, and the other driver was clearly at fault for the accident, but only carries a maximum of $25,000 of coverage for car accidents. Although it is possible for you and for your insurance company to obtain the maximum $25,000 of coverage, there are still $75,000 of damages that have not been compensated. In this scenario, it is possible to pursue for you, as the injured party, to pursue the other driver directly for the balance of the damages. Unfortunately, however, it is often the case that drivers with extremely low insurance policies are functionally financially insolvent—that is, they will likely declare bankruptcy and hope to discharge or significantly reduce the amount owed in a bankruptcy proceeding that might drag on for years in lieu of actually paying for the balance of the damages. Instead, motorists can pursue a claim against their own insurance company (for UIM coverage), both subject to your own policy limits and deductibles, and also subject to your own insurance company’s willingness to pay.
Negligence Principles in Missouri Car Accident Law
In general, almost all Missouri motor vehicle and car accidents are evaluated under negligence principles. Even if a case does not proceed to trial, insurance adjusters are well aware of these principles, and use them as a means to evaluate claims. An injured driver must be able to show four interrelated elements to successfully recover for damages. First: the driver at fault must have had a duty to protect or prevent against the injuries suffered in the accident. All drivers on roads in Missouri have a duty to drive in a reasonable manner, to drive at a reasonable speed, maintain their vehicles in a reasonable manner, be alert and aware of their environment, maintain control of their vehicle, and to fulfill any other duty imposed by state or local traffic laws. In motor vehicle accidents, it is usually not difficult to show that the driver of a vehicle had a duty to prevent against the injuries that may have occurred.
Secondly, you must show that the at-fault driver has breached this duty. For example, if the driver had a duty to drive in a reasonable manner, but was driving while intoxicated, this is an obvious breach of the driver’s duty to drive in a reasonably safe manner.
Third, the injured party must show that the injuries he or she suffered were a direct cause of the breach of the duty. For example, if a driver is struck by an intoxicated driver, and, as a result, breaks her wrist, she must show that, for example, her wrist was not already fractured at the time of the accident, or was not fractured in between when the accident occurred and when she went to the doctor or filed a claim for her injuries.
Finally, the injured party must show actual, physical damages. That is, usually being inconvenienced or emotionally disturbed is not enough to prove case of negligence at law, although non-physical damages may also be compensated for if there are, at least, some physical injuries.
Injured parties in motor vehicles accidents are helped by the fact that many at fault drivers are violating motor vehicle laws at the time of the accident. In general, if a driver is found to be violating a law at the time of the accident, this creates a presumption of negligence known as “negligence per se.” In a negligence per se action, you need only show that the driver at fault violated the law, and that this law was designed to protect the type of people and type of injuries suffered by you, or people like you. For example, if the at fault driver was speeding, this creates a presumption of negligence that the at-fault driver is, in fact, at fault for the accident. The at-fault driver can “rebut” (or dispute) this presumption by showing additional evidence, however, unlike in normal negligence actions, it is up to the at-fault driver, rather than the injured party, to prove why he or she should be not be held at fault.
Importantly, most car accident cases in Missouri are not straightforward. For example, both the injured driver and the at-fault driver may have been speeding when the collision occurred, meaning that both were at least somewhat responsible for what occurred. When fault is difficult to determine, Missouri uses a system known as comparative fault. In Missouri, judges and juries can apportion fault to each party on a percentage basis, and an injured party who is even 1% at fault may still be able to recover for their injuries. For example, if a driver was speeding while talking on a hand-held cellphone when he hit another driver who failed to yield to oncoming traffic, both drivers might be at fault. A jury could decide that the driver who failed to yield to oncoming traffic was only 10% at fault, and the driver who was speeding while using at cellphone was 90% at fault. In this case, the amount of total recovery—perhaps $100,000 for hospital bills for the driver using the cellphone—would be apportioned by the amount of fault. The driver 10% at fault would be liable for $10,000 of damages (10% of $100,000), while the driver 90% at fault would be liable for $90,000 of damages (or, if he was the only driver injured, would be required to pay for $90,000 of damages out of his or his insurance company’s own pocket).
Although negligence actions against another driver are, by far, the most common legal cause of action used to obtain recovery, many drivers are unaware that there are additional options, and that there might be additional causes for their accident. Poor road conditions such as potholes, uneven pavement, poor or misleading traffic signals, a lack of guardrails, poor road maintenance, or even poor or unsafe road design, cause serious traffic accidents every year in Missouri. Injured motorist who are victims of roadway defects must pursue different legal remedies from motorists who suffer a traffic accident due to another driver and, as a result, many are confused at these options.
Car Accidents Due To Missouri Roadway Defects
Although roadway defects constitute an entire body of law (and are usually specified by Missouri statutes), the legal concept discussed above with regards to negligence actions are broadly similar. The state of Missouri, its municipalities, counties, and other agents responsible for maintaining the roads have numerous duties owed to drivers and passengers. For example, the state must maintain reasonable maintenance of the roadways, must maintain proper signaling if applicable, must set a reasonable speed given the design of the roadway, and must design the roadways in a reasonable and safe manner. These duties also apply to any agent of the state: for example, if the state, city, or county hires a roadway contractor to design, build, repair, or maintain a road, any defect caused as a result of that contractor’s negligence will be imputed to the state. In such a circumstance, the state, roadway contractor, and, potentially, individual employee responsible for the defect may all be liable for the accident.
If a driver is injured after passing over a pothole, for example, the driver might argue that the state of Missouri (or any other entity involved in maintaining the road) had a duty to reasonably repair and monitor the roadways for such potholes. The driver would argue that the state violated this duty by not repairing the pothole, and that the pothole caused actual, physical damage to the driver’s car. The state, in response, might argue that, although it does have a duty to maintain the roadways, it is not reasonable that the state can repair all potholes on all roads at all times, given the vast roadway system and the state’s limited resources. Were the case to go to trial, a judge or jury would determine whether is it reasonable for the state to be charged with the duty of repairing potholes such as the one that damaged the car, considering all the circumstances. Such circumstances might include the size of the pothole, how long the pothole has been present, whether other accidents have occurred as a result of the pothole, and so on.
Most motor vehicle accidents are dealt with prior to or outside of a formal trial. Insurance companies often settle amongst themselves and all of the parties to avoid costly litigation. However, the sheer complexity of the parties involved, various avenues for being misrepresented, and the strict time limits in filing a lawsuit, if necessary, mean hiring an Missouri car accident attorney who is familiar with personal injury lawsuits and insurance companies is essential. Many Missouri car accident attorneys in this field take cases on a “contingency” basis, which means that they will not collect a fee unless an injured party is successful in recovering for their injuries, and this fee is proportionate to the total amount of the recovery (for example, a third of the total recovered). Moreover, many victims are simply unaware of the scope of their legal rights, ranging from suing drivers, to pursuing legal action against the state of county, to many other options. Contacting a Missouri car accident lawyer for a free consultation is a first, and extremely important, step to becoming informed and ensuring your legal rights are completely protected.
For more information, please contact Thompson Law Office to discuss your options with a Missouri Car Accident Lawyer.