California has a host of laws that apply to drivers when it comes to traffic safety. These laws govern behaviors ranging from driving at the proper speed to avoiding drugs or alcohol to the use of seatbelts and child restraints. So what is the effect, if any, when you get into an accident with another driver and that driver was in violation of a traffic safety law when the accident happened?
As an individual citizen, you would not be in position to prosecute the other driver for breaking the law, that is what government prosecuting attorneys are for in the area of criminal trials. But that does not necessarily mean that you cannot use the other driver's legal violation in your favor in a civil case for money damages
The key concept here is what is known by attorneys as "negligence per se." What this means is that under California rules of evidence, someone else's violation of a law can serve as evidence of that person’s breach of a duty of care to you. The elements of negligence per se are:
- The other person violated a statute, ordinance or regulation;
- That violation directly led to the death or injury of another person, or to property damage;
- The death, injury or property damage happened because of something that the law was meant to protect against;
- The person who suffered the injury, death or property damage was the type of person whom the law was written to protect.
If all of these elements are satisfied, then the legal violation can be used as evidence that the other person was negligent.
There are some caveats to keep in mind when it comes to negligence per se. First, it is not a cause of action in itself, but an evidentiary tool. Second, there are some defenses to it, such as if the other person can demonstrate that the legal violation occurred when he or she was reasonably trying to comply with the law, or if the person who he law was a child (and not acting in an adult capacity).
Your personal injury attorney will be able to advise you on whether and how you may be able to use negligence per se to your advantage in pursuing a car accident-related claim for injury or property damage, as well as with other legal, factual and evidentiary issues.