police officer writing a ticket for traffic violationEven when a car accident seems like an open-and-shut case, a victim will still have to establish a clear link between the at-fault driver’s actions and the injury to win compensation. Crash cases are often based on general negligence law, which requires a victim to establish a breach of duty of care. However, if the at-fault driver was breaking traffic laws at the time of the crash, the victim may have an easier time getting compensation under the doctrine of negligence per se.

What Is Negligence Per Se?

Car accident cases, like all personal injury cases, rely on a legal doctrine of negligence. The person who is negligent is the one who may be liable for injury and property damage—and if both parties share negligence, they may each be responsible for a portion of the damages.

In addition to general negligence law, there is also the doctrine of negligence per se. Negligence per se applies in cases when a defendant (person at fault) hurts someone because he or she violated a public safety law. Negligence per se literally means negligence in and of itself. In other words, a person who breaks a law intended to keep people safe can be considered inherently negligent. In a car accident case, illegal activities that can result in a negligence per se claim include reckless driving, excessive speeding, running a red light, or driving under the influence.

How to Prove Negligence Per Se in a Crash Case

Since negligence per se acknowledges that there was both a duty of care and a failure to uphold the duty, the plaintiff (injury victim) doesn’t have to prove these tenets of the law. However, proving that the defendant broke the law is only the first step to proving guilt through negligence per se.

In order to establish negligence per se, a plaintiff and his attorney must prove: 

  • The defendant violated the law. The defendant must have broken an established state, federal, or municipal law for negligence per se to apply. In many cases, there can be confusion as to whether a law was actually broken. For example, Tennessee law considers running a red light to occur if a driver’s front tires were behind the stop line after the signal turned red. If the driver can prove his front tires were over the line before the signal changed, he may not be liable for a red light violation.
  • The plaintiff is a member of the protected class. Most public safety laws apply to everyone, while others only apply to a specific set of people (such as children). The plaintiff must belong to the class of people the law was intended to protect.
  • The injury is related to the law broken by the defendant. The defendant’s violation of the law must have caused the plaintiff to suffer the kind of injury that the law was supposed to prevent.
  • The defendant’s violation of the law was the primary cause of the plaintiff’s injury. If the injury was caused by something other than the defendant’s actions (such as a preexisting injury or the plaintiff’s own negligence), then negligence per se may not apply.

Limitations and Defenses in Cases of Negligence Per Se

Even if you are able to establish negligence per se, the at-fault driver could refute the claim if he or she had a legitimate defense. There are a handful of legal defenses that can be used to excuse the violations of a law under certain circumstances, including:

  • Incapacity. A driver may not be liable if he or she was incapacitated at the time of the violation (for instance, if he or she was having a heart attack and lost control of the vehicle).
  • Due diligence. A defendant may have made attempts to follow the law, but was unable to avoid an accident.
  • Emergency. There may have been a sudden emergency (such as debris falling onto the roadway) that was unrelated to the defendant’s misconduct.
  • Greater good. A defendant may have broken the law because compliance would have caused more harm to others (such as swerving into a bike lane to avoid a head-on collision with a runaway vehicle).

At GriffithLaw, we can examine the negligence laws that may apply in your case, and we can advise you of your next steps at no cost to you. Our injury attorneys provide initial consultations free of charge, and we do not collect any legal fees until your case is resolved. To learn more about your rights, simply fill out the short contact form on this page or request a free copy of our book, The 10 Worst Mistakes You Can Make With Your Tennessee Injury Case.

John Griffith
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Nashville Personal Injury Trial Attorney