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What is "Negligence per se" in Texas Car Accident Cases?

We hold drivers who break the law accountable

Texas law puts a general obligation on all drivers to operate their vehicles safely: paying attention, driving defensively, and exercising reasonable caution to avoid causing car accidents. When a driver violates this general standard, they can be found negligent—and thus legally responsible for any injuries they cause.

However, Texas law also puts various specific obligations on drivers, such as obeying traffic signs and signals, staying within marked lanes, staying at or below the posted speed limit, and refraining from texting while driving. The rules of the road are intended to protect public safety, and drivers who violate them often cause serious injuries.

Those rules give rise to a concept called negligence per se, which can play a significant role in your car accident claim or lawsuit. The experienced Houston car accident attorneys at Smith & Hassler can explain how the law applies to your situation and develop a legal strategy to pursue maximum compensation.

How negligence per se differs from regular negligence

Most car accident claims and other personal injury matters are based on a legal concept called negligence. Negligence has three key elements:

  • The defendant owed you a duty of care; that is, a legal responsibility to be cautious and avoid causing injury.
  • The defendant breached that duty of care by action or omission.
  • The breach of the duty of care caused or contributed to your injuries.

For instance, in car accident cases, drivers generally owe a duty of care to other road users, including other drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, and passengers in both their own and other vehicles. A breach of that duty of care may include driving at an unsafe speed or failing to pay attention. Finally, your attorney needs to show that the breach caused your accident or, at the very least, was a contributing factor.

Conceptually, negligence is all about enforcing unwritten community standards of safe and prudent behavior. Negligence per se is a completely different legal theory that focuses on a violation of a written rule or regulation intended to protect public safety. The elements of a negligence per se argument include:

  • The defendant violated a law that is intended to protect safety,
  • The violation of the law caused the accident,
  • You are in the class of people protected by that law, and
  • The law was intended to prevent the type of accident or injury

In Texas, if you can meet the above requirements, that creates a presumption that the other driver was negligent. They then have the right to present evidence proving that they were not negligent. It's not an automatic win, but it does shift the burden of proof to the other side, which can make a significant difference in a contested case.

Examples of negligence per se in Texas car accident cases

Again, the rules of the road are intended to protect safety, so there are many scenarios in which a driver who violates those rules can be held liable under the principle of negligence per se. Some such scenarios include:

  • A driver violates the statewide ban on texting while driving, or a local law prohibiting handheld cellphone use while driving, and causes a distracted driving accident.
  • A driver runs a red light or stop sign and causes a T-bone accident.
  • A motorist is driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs and causes a wreck due to their intoxication.
  • A car traveling the wrong way in a lane or on- or off-ramp causes a head-on collision.
  • A motorist fails to yield at a crosswalk and hits a pedestrian who is legally using the crosswalk.

In each of these scenarios, the at-fault driver violated a law intended to promote the safe flow of traffic and avoid car crashes. The injured person (another road user) is within the class of people that the law is meant to protect. And the type of accident or injury (a car wreck) is precisely the type of accident that these laws are meant to prevent. Each of these scenarios would most likely lead to a viable argument for negligence per se.

Counterarguments to negligence per se

While negligence per se is a strong argument for the plaintiff, there are some counterarguments the defense can use under certain circumstances, including:

  • The defendant was incapacitated and unable to comply with the law (for example, because of a medical condition).
  • The defendant didn't know and could not have reasonably known about the law.
  • Under the circumstances, complying with the law would have been more dangerous than breaking it.
  • Under the circumstances, the defendant was unable to comply with the law even using reasonable care.

However, these are tough arguments to win in the context of traffic laws. Every motorist knows or should know that there are rules of the road that they must comply with. If you have evidence that the at-fault driver broke a traffic law, then it's quite hard for the insurance company to dodge liability.

How negligence per se can help your car accident case

If your case goes to trial, negligence per se can have a significant impact on the jury verdict. If the judge allows a negligence per se argument, then the jury will be instructed that, if they find the defendant violated a traffic law, they must presume that the defendant was negligent.

Effectively, this simplifies the jury's decision: instead of deciding whether the defendant was unreasonably careless, which is a judgment call, they must merely determine whether the defendant broke a traffic law, which is much more black and white. This is usually advantageous for the injured person.

Of course, most cases settle without going to trial, but negligence per se can still play a significant role in settlement negotiations. Insurance companies take the likely outcome at trial into account when deciding how to value a claim and what to offer in a settlement. If the insurance company knows there is a negligence per se argument to be had, then they know it may be harder for them to win at trial. This can often lead to a larger settlement than would have otherwise been possible.

It's worth noting, however, that negligence per se can also be used against you. If the insurance company has evidence that you violated a traffic law, that could reduce the value of your claim based on comparative negligence or even bar you from recovering altogether. That's why it's so important to immediately get a car accident attorney who can protect your rights and get to the bottom of what really happened.

Talk to an experienced car accident attorney about your legal rights and options

If the driver who hit you violated a traffic law, you might think that your case is open and shut. However, that's not always the case in practice. While negligence per se can make your case stronger, you still need an attorney to investigate, find evidence proving that the at-fault driver violated the law, and make your case in a manner that the insurance company finds persuasive. You also need a lawyer to quantify your damages and advocate for the full compensation you need and deserve.

If you were hit by someone who was speeding, running a red light, or even driving under the influence, don't assume your case is open and shut. Get an experienced car accident attorney who will fight for your rights under Texas law. Contact Smith & Hassler today for a free consultation.

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