When we were children, “fault” was a common word. How often did you or a friend say, “It wasn’t my fault!” or “It’s her fault!” to avoid getting in trouble, or to lessen a punishment?
As adults, “fault” still means what it meant then – unless you’re involved in a lawsuit or an insurance claim. When you’re in a car accident, “fault” carries significant weight, especially when it comes to determining who pays for what and how much.
What is the legal definition of “fault”?
Fault is a failure to act reasonably or in accordance with the law or one’s duty, whether due to negligence or intent. It encompasses improper actions or omissions that result in harm to another, often stemming from ignorance, carelessness, or negligence.
Faults can be categorized as gross, ordinary, or slight. Gross fault or neglect involves a failure to exercise the level of care for others that a minimally attentive person typically applies to their own matters. Ordinary fault involves a lapse in the level of care that society generally expects individuals to take in their own affairs. A slight fault is characterized by a deficiency in the level of care that highly attentive individuals usually devote to their own matters.
Within the realm of tort law (law that seeks to address wrongful acts or the infringement of rights), fault manifests in the forms of malice, intention, and negligence. To successfully pursue a claim for damages, the plaintiff (the injured person) must demonstrate fault on the part of the alleged tortfeasor (the person who committed the act – AKA, the defendant). Without this proof, the claim for damages may not succeed.
How does fault apply to a car accident claim in Illinois?
Say you’re sitting at a red light, waiting for it to turn green. A driver who is texting hits you from behind, smashing up the back of your car. As a result of this crash, you sustain a nasty case of whiplash and a broken collar bone.
The first thing to establish is fault: whose wrongful actions resulted in the crash? In this scenario, it was the distracted driver: not only did they break the law (texting while driving), but their negligence* resulted in you sustaining injuries. So in this case, fault rests with the driver.
*Usually, negligence is at play in car accident cases. It’s very rare that a collision is the result of malice or intention, though it has happened: road rage cases can be based in malice and/or intention, and you could potentially argue that a drunk driving case is intentional harm, too.
What does “liability” mean?
Liability is the legal responsibility for one’s actions or failures to act. To secure compensation in a lawsuit, the party bringing the action (the plaintiff) must establish the legal liability of the defendant if the plaintiff’s allegations are proven true. This requires presenting evidence of the duty to act, the failure to discharge that duty, and the direct connection (proximate cause) between that failure and any resulting injury or harm to the plaintiff.
Let’s go back to our example with the red light. The distracted driver is legally at fault for that crash, true – but now, your attorney’s job is to prove that he or she is also liable for that crash. To do this, we point out that had that driver not been texting, the chances are very good he or she would not have hit you, and you would not have been injured. But they did, and now you are – and therefore, we would argue, that driver should be responsible for all the losses you sustained, like your medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and more.
To recap: fault and liability are distinct concepts in the realm of law. Fault refers to a party’s failure to act reasonably or in accordance with the law or their duty, which can result from negligence or intent. It primarily focuses on the wrongful behavior or actions of an individual or entity. In contrast, liability pertains to the legal responsibility that arises from one’s acts or omissions. It signifies that a person or entity can be held accountable for the consequences of their actions or failure to act.
Fault, liability, and modified comparative negligence law in Illinois
Illinois follows a “modified comparative negligence” standard when it comes to determining how much compensation an injured person is entitled to receive after a car accident. Essentially, it means that as long as the injured person is less than 50% at-fault for the accident, he or she is entitled to seek full compensation. If we use our example with the red light, the chances are very good that the distracted driver would be found 100% liable, if he or she was found 100% at fault.
But things can get complicated when there are multiple parties, or when the person who is hit by the car may have played some role in the crash. The Illinois Department of Insurance offers this example and explanation:
Suppose Jane is speeding down the street and Dick makes a left-hand turn in front of Jane, striking her car. Both drivers contributed to this accident and the insurance company, applying comparative negligence laws, will make the determination of liability for damages.
…. the recovered amount may be reduced in proportion to the degree that the injured party was at fault. For example, if the other driver is determined to be 80% at fault and you are determined to be 20% at fault, you can collect for your damages because you were less than 50% at fault. However, the other driver’s insurance company might only offer to pay for 80% of your damages.
As you can see, fault plays a role in liability in Illinois.
A quick note about Missouri
Since our firm represents a lot of clients across the river, we just wanted to take a quick minute to talk about Missouri, which is a “pure” comparative negligence state. That means the 50% rule doesn’t apply. So if you were the distracted driver in the red light case, and you suffered injuries as a result of the crash, you could make a claim, too, as long as the other person is at least 1% at fault. In other words, as long as there’s some level of shared liability, whether it’s 50/50, 75/25, or 99/1, both parties can seek compensation for their losses.
At Glisson Law, our dedicated legal team and experienced attorneys are experienced in providing assistance when you find yourself involved in a car accident. We understand how important fault and liability are to your case. We also know that the insurance company for the driver who hit you will stop at nothing to show that their policyholder wasn’t at fault, and therefore can’t be held liable.
We work diligently to gather crucial evidence, such as accident reports, witness statements, and expert opinions, to establish a clear picture of liability. Whether you believe you are partially at fault or seeking compensation from another party, our legal team will guide you through the intricacies of comparative negligence laws. We aim to ensure that your rights are protected, and we strive to maximize your chances of receiving the compensation you deserve for your injuries and damages.
To schedule a free consultation to discuss your situation, call or contact us today. Based in Alton, the legal team at Glisson Law takes pride in providing dedicated representation to injured clients throughout Belleville, Edwardsville, St. Clair, and Madison counties, in addition to serving the wider Southwestern Illinois and Missouri areas.