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Understanding Negligence and Liability in Car Accident Cases

Posted in Car Accidents on March 2, 2023

When a car crashes into the back of another vehicle and the driver of the latter loses his or her life, you’d ordinarily expect the driver of the rear-ending car to feel the full wrath of the law. However, this wasn’t the case for Caitlyn Jenner, who rear-ended Kimberly Howe’s vehicle in a four-car collision.

In September 2015, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office announced that Caitlyn Jenner won’t be charged for the claims brought by the plaintiffs — the deceased’s grandchildren and the driver of a Prius, Jessica Steindorff. Caitlyn’s saving grace was negligence, or more specifically, the absence of negligence while she was behind the wheels of her SUV. How so?

Understanding Liability

Liability simply connotes the burden of fault that befalls the individual that causes a car accident. The individual could either be one of the drivers, a passenger in a vehicle, a pedestrian on the road, or even the owner of the vehicle who is sitting at home. 

Now, what determines where the burden of fault lies? Negligence is the key factor here. 

What Is Negligence in Car Accidents?

Generally, negligence is a lack of care or reasonable action when faced with specific circumstances. In car accidents, this translates to a lack of care or skill while plying the road. As easy as anyone may think it is, proving the presence of negligence to the court is not an easy task.

Determining Negligence in Car Accident Cases

When a claim of negligence is brought to a court, a plaintiff has to convince the judge or jury of the presence of four factors. These include;

A Duty of Care

The duty of care is the responsibility of everyone to use the road reasonably. For drivers, having a duty of care means following traffic rules like staying below the speed limit, stopping at a red light, not drinking while driving, or not driving on the bicycle lane, to mention a few. It also covers taking appropriate actions when faced with dangerous situations, such as hitting the brakes on time.

For pedestrians, the duty of care includes never crossing the road when the crosswalk light shows red. For vehicle owners who aren’t even on the road, a duty of care includes never giving a car to an unfit (i.e., underage or unlicensed) individual to drive, or ensuring the car is always fit for roadworthiness.

A Breach of Duty of Care

Everyone definitely has a duty of care while on the road. The next step for the plaintiff is to prove that a duty of care has been breached, which means to prove that there has been a failure to exercise reasonable care or take appropriate action. 

A breach, for instance, would be an individual driving at 50 miles per hour on a 20mph road, running a stop light, or never hitting the brakes. It also includes a passenger distracting the driver, a pedestrian running onto the road for no reason, or a vehicle owner not paying attention to the car’s roadworthiness.


To have a case of negligence, there must be an actual injury on the victim’s body (e.g, scarred face or broken arm) or damage to the victim’s property (e.g, a damaged car engine). The word “actual” is important here as there is no claim if there is no identified injury. For instance, there is no claim if a driver hits your car but you haven’t sustained any physical complication or your car doesn’t even have a scratch. 


Where there is injury, the plaintiff must also prove that the breach of a duty of care is the actual cause of both the accident and the injury. If a driver is intoxicated but another driver’s accident is caused by a cat on the road, negligence can’t be established against the intoxicated driver. It may only be established where the intoxicated driver moves recklessly, causing the other car to swerve and crash, among other scenarios. 

According to case laws and legal authorities in New Orleans, or anywhere else across the US, anyone who is found to have all these factors established against him or her is liable for claims in a car accident. 

Child Star, Michelle Rodriguez, had the burden of liability proven against her in a car accident in 2003, which led to three-year probation and eventual jail time in 2006. She breached her duty of care by driving while intoxicated which caused a hit-and-run scenario. In Caitlyn Jenner’s 2015 case, it was different. 

Caitlyn only rear-ended Kimberly Howe’s vehicle because the deceased had hit the brakes suddenly. Caitlyn hit her own brakes 1.5 to 1.9 seconds before the crash, which the investigators say is reasonable in the circumstances. 

What’s more, investigators also put Caitlyn under a sobriety test to check if she was driving while drunk, and also checked her text messages to determine if she was texting while driving. These negligent behaviors were entirely absent.

Although there was injury and causation in the crash, she hadn’t breached her duty of care. The absence of the breach meant a claim of negligence could not have succeeded. 

There is more to the Caitlyn Jenner case, however, and this helps us understand contributory negligence.

What Is Contributory Negligence?

Contributory negligence is present when the victim or injured individual had a hand in a car accident. It is a defense that could be cited where the injured individual suing for claims had also been negligent in the accident. We see it with both Kimberly Howe, the deceased, and Jessica Steindorff who also sued Caitlyn Jenner for claims of personal injury and lack of wages. 

As Jenner’s legal representative pointed out, both Kimberly Howe and Jessica Steindorff had been driving on suspended licenses, a factor that prevented the court from awarding the plaintiffs damages for personal injury. The court dismissed the cases and both plaintiffs only agreed on settlements with Caitlyn Jenner, settlements that were paid out of the reality star’s insurer’s pocket. Zero impact on Caitlyn’s finances. 

From all facts, we see that the presence or absence of negligence determines whether one is liable and also if an individual can successfully seek an award for damages from the court. 

Types of Damages Available in Car Accident Claims

Although state prosecutors process separate criminal claims against the liable road user, a victim, through laws of tort, can claim damages for personal loss or injuries. If successful, these damages claimed through a court judgment or settlement deal may then come in two forms or categories; General Damages and Special Damages. 

General Damages

Also known as non-economic damages, general damages are claims on natural injuries or losses arising from a car accident. They have a direct natural connection with the impact of the accident and include certain claims on;

  • Physical injury or impairment
  • Mental complications
  • Pain and suffering
  • Reduced quality of life
  • Loss of companionship, brought by a spouse, partner, or family member. 

Special Damages

Special Damages relate to the economic losses suffered by the plaintiff. They are direct financial losses or expenses accrued by the plaintiff due to the effects of the car accident. Some of these claims may be based on;

  • Expenses to fix damage to the vehicle
  • Total expected medical expenses
  • Lost wages and earning capacity

Due to their nature, the monetary value of general damages is harder to determine than the value of special damages. 

Even some special damages, such as claims on future medical expenses or loss of earning capacity, are also difficult to calculate. A plaintiff would also have to take the nature of the injury into consideration, which brings more complexity to the calculations.

When Should You Contact an Attorney?

Although the complexity of calculating damages is a crucial stage better handled by an expert legal representative, the services of a lawyer are essential before this stage. 

The moment an accident occurs, damages to the person and property start having effects. Medical bills start piling up, a victim has vehicle repair costs to take care of, and victims also have to deal with insurers who don’t particularly have their interests in mind. What’s worse, like Caitlyn Jenner, a victim may also have damage claims and prosecution charges levied against him or her. 

There is also an essential need to immediately gather the right evidence from the scene of the car accident and also use the evidence to appropriately guide insurance and legal claims/defenses. These Essentials are why a victim needs to have a lawyer by his or her side the moment that impact occurs. 

Coming Out of Car Accident Cases Financially Unscathed

Car Accident Law

Liability in car accidents always falls on the negligent party, which could even be the victim or injured individual. Negligence in a car accident means, where a breach of duty, injury, and causation is present, a party is liable to claims by other parties. Where the victim is guilty of contributory negligence, his or her claims on damages, both general and special, may be set aside. 

To come out of a car accident financially unscathed, always observe the utmost duty of care while on the road. Like Caitlyn Jenner, a breach of duty is never established against you and all claims will not succeed thanks to the absence of this one factor. A party may also go the extra step to successfully claim general and specific damages. 

A lawyer makes the whole process seamless and helps you get the most financial compensation out of insurance companies and awards from settlement agreements and court judgments. Contact the firm today at (504) 500-5000 or at our website to schedule an appointment.