One evening while driving to a school event, something awful happened to me. And to someone else.
As I guided the car down the road, an uninsured, intoxicated man walked right into my vehicle. He was badly injured, and I felt terrible. And yet despite my feelings of guilt, the fact is that it was 100 percent his fault. And so I started to wonder: would I have to pay a price? Should I have to?
The man on the road
The rural two-lane highway was already dark at 6:00 p.m. A few houses dotted each side of the road, but the area contained no streetlamps—the only illumination came from my headlights. I was less than half a mile from our home and traveling at a speed of about 40 mph. I didn’t see the man in black clothes until he was stepping onto the yellow double line in the center of the highway.
The next moment was surreal. With his hood up and his head down, the man paid no attention to my vehicle and walked right into the front driver’s side panel. I hit the brakes, and he rolled along the front panel before his head smashed into the windshield and slammed into the rearview mirror. His body flew up into the air, and landed face-down in the opposite lane.
On the scene
The impact was loud enough to bring neighbors to the scene. One of them revealed that the victim was highly intoxicated, had just used the neighbor’s telephone (perhaps five minutes prior), and was likely returning to his own trailer across the street.
The first emergency responders on the scene asked me to move my vehicle. I refused, wanting the police to see precisely where I was—in my own lane—when the accident occurred. That might seem callous, but there was sufficient room for the ambulance to navigate around my car and tend to the victim. I was working through a mix of shock, fear and self-preservation.
When state troopers arrived, the victim had already been transported to the hospital. The troopers surveyed the area and interviewed me, neighbors, and responders. After gathering necessary information, they instructed me to avoid discussing the accident with anyone other than my insurance company and let me leave.
Social media rubberneckers
Exaggerated stories describing the accident immediately hit social media. Facebook friends reached out to me for details or to express their concern for my well-being. I ignored their requests, keeping in mind the troopers’ advice to be discreet.
What would happen next? Would I be sued? Would I have to pay for the ambulance, hospital, and recovery bills of the victim? Would my insurance cover the repairs to my vehicle (which, without a windshield, I could no longer drive)? Would my insurance provider drop me?
Phoenix personal injury attorney James Goodnow typically represents the victim involved in accidents and says hitting an uninsured, intoxicated man with your car generally means the driver can expect some potential liability.
“In most cases, the accident will be evaluated in terms of perception,” explains Goodnow, such as reaction time, comparative fault, and the jurisdiction where the accident occurred. “In some jurisdictions, if the pedestrian is 50 percent at fault, the case may be barred (inadmissible).”
When accidents happen between cars and pedestrians, we often automatically assume that it’s the driver who’s at fault, says attorney Sam Williamson , a solicitor with the Scottish law firm Accident Compensation Scotland. “This stems from the idea that the pedestrian has ‘the right of way’ at all times. From a legal standpoint, this is completely false, as a pedestrian can absolutely be responsible for the accident either wholly or partially.” His legal analysis applies to US traffic laws as well as to those of Scotland.
Williamson explained to me that when the pedestrian is under the influence, it becomes slightly easier for the driver to avoid blame for the accident. “This can be further strengthened by witnesses to the incident and proof that the car was traveling within the speed limit,” he says.
Insurance to the rescue
I reported the matter to the insurance company, citing the incident number from the police report. Within 24 hours, I was contacted by an insurance investigator. “Insurance companies have an obligation to investigate, defend you, and indemnify [you] if you’ve been sued up to your policy limits,” says Goodnow.
“You also have an obligation to cooperate with them,” he adds. “These types of cases are often evaluated on things like lighting conditions and whether or not you had on your car’s headlights. You may end up in court and a deposition may be taken. Your insurance company can indeed defend you and protect you from exposure.”
And that’s just what my insurance company did. They dispatched an estimator to our home immediately, and I received a check on the spot for repairs to my vehicle.
Most significant was how the insurance company handled demands from the victim. The man suffered a broken jaw, broken ribs, a fractured ankle, and the loss of several teeth. He pursued full monetary damages through our insurance. His claims were denied.
It wasn’t my fault
Fortunately for me, the system worked. I was completely forthcoming with all details, witnesses were responsive and honest, and my insurance company worked hard on my behalf.
Furthermore, it helped that the troopers who handled my accident were well-acquainted with the victim’s track record. The man had been in the police station just hours before—and indeed the troopers knew what the victim was wearing even though they arrived on the scene after he’d been taken away in the ambulance.
The police report confirmed that the accident was a direct result of the man’s intoxicated condition and that I was not at all at fault. My insurance company was satisfied with this information, and they handled all inquiries and claims from the victim without involving me further. My vehicle was repaired, my insurance premium remained unaffected, and the victim has recovered from his injuries.
I hope you never have to go through such a terrible situation, but if you do, try to keep your guilt in check, and understand that the law offers protections when you are truly not at fault. And if someone tries to say you are, hire an attorney and get help immediately.