Contributory Negligence in Virginia
Imagine this scenario: Vehicle A is sitting in a left turn lane governed by a traffic signal, which is currently a solid green globe. Her left turn signal is on, and she is waiting for oncoming traffic to clear before making a left turn. Vehicle A watches a final car pass, looks ahead, sees no cars coming, and begins to turn left onto the intersecting street. As Vehicle A begins her turn, Vehicle B appears over the crest of a slight hill. Vehicle B hits Vehicle A in the back portion of her vehicle. Law Enforcement is called to arrive. During the investigation, the driver of Vehicle B concedes to driving 5 to 7 miles over the posted speed limit. Both drivers complain of minor injuries. Does the officer issue a ticket to either driver? If so, to whom? Who is liable for the accident for purposes of any personal injury case?
The answers to these questions may surprise you. With respect to any criminal or traffic citation, the most likely outcome is that the driver of Vehicle A would be issued a citation for failing to yield the right-of-way. Driver A has a duty to yield to oncoming traffic and only turn when safe. The driver of Vehicle B would likely not receive a speeding ticket because there is no evidence to corroborate her admission that she exceeded the speed limit. Let’s add one additional wrinkle to this scenario: Driver A pleads not guilty, and the case goes to a hearing. A General District Court judge convicts Driver A of failing to yield and was given a $50 fine. Therefore, since the driver of Vehicle A was convicted of a traffic infraction, then she would be liable for the accident for Vehicle B’s personal injuries, correct?
Again, the answer to this question may surprise you, and it demonstrates the difference between civil and criminal cases. The officer, if he determined that he had probable cause, could have charged both drivers with infractions, and the Court would have had the obligation to determine independently whether a violation of law occurred in each circumstance. In the civil arena, however, responsibility for the accident is viewed as a singular event. The likely result of the civil case is that both parties would be unable to recover from each other for personal injuries, even though Driver A was convicted of a traffic infraction and Driver B was not even charged with one. This principle of law is called contributory negligence.
In Virginia, a person must establish that the cause of the accident rests completely in one of the parties. “But for” the individual’s conduct, no accident would have occurred. In the matter we are discussing, there is responsibility on each side. Driver A could have waited longer and been absolutely sure that there was no oncoming traffic. At the same time, Driver B, had she been driving at the speed limit, may have avoided the accident—Driver B contributed to the occurrence of the accident by speeding. If you bear any responsibility for the accident, even slightly, then you may be barred from a recovery.
Some states have a “comparative negligence” standard, which evaluates the percentage of responsibility to each party and assesses recovery to each side based upon that allocation of fault. But that’s not Virginia: in Virginia, it’s all or nothing.
The message is this: if you’re in an accident, it is not enough to say the other person received a ticket, so they are responsible for your personal injuries. You have to make an honest evaluation of your own driving behavior as well. Whether you receive compensation for your injuries may depend on it.
If you or a loved one have been involved in an automobile accident, please contact us to schedule your free consultation with an experienced Virginia personal injury attorney. Our lawyers represent clients injured in car accidents throughout Fairfax, Manassas, Prince William County, Fredericksburg, Alexandria, Arlington and all of Northern Virginia.