Off-road Vehicle Accident Settlements



A substantial number of personal injury claims and settlements involve off-road vehicles. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), each year off-road vehicle accidents injure more than 130,000 people. Seven hundred more die. In this section, we cover:

Below we discuss various types of off-road vehicles, common injuries to drivers and passengers, factors causing accidents, and who's legally responsible for each type of vehicle accident settlement. We also discuss important liability concerns such as duty of care, assuming the risk and contributory negligence.

Golf Carts

While golfers primarily drive golf carts on golf courses, others, such as security patrol at shopping malls, realtors, automobile dealers transporting customers on property, and other commercial activities also use them. There are many private owners too (seniors in retirement communities, for example).

Very few golf carts have seat belts. Weight distribution is often uneven and they can easily tip over. Golf cart injuries include abrasions (scrapes), contusions (bruises), lacerations (cuts), and whiplash. More serious injuries are broken bones, spinal cord injuries, concussions, neck and back injuries, and even death.

Factors in golf cart accidents include:

  • Inadequate maintenance, bad brakes, steering malfunctions, etc.
  • Poor golf course design (uneven or steep berms, "blind" sand traps, hidden sprinklers, etc.)
  • Golf course employee "starters" knowingly allowing intoxicated drivers to operate the vehicle
  • Faulty golf cart design, defective parts and equipment
  • Driver intoxication, recklessness, or inexperience

Who's liable?

  • Golf cart driver
  • Golf cart owner
  • Owners and managers of the golf course
  • Golf cart manufacturer for defects causing or contributing to the accident
  • Driver of another golf cart (if caused the collision)

Go-carts

Most go-cart accidents involve children 15 years old and younger. Go-carts pose unique dangers to drivers and spectators. Their speeds can sometimes exceed 30 miles an hour and their drivers are often young, reckless and inexperienced. While riding, they're only inches from the ground. Collisions between drivers are common.

Many track owners don't require drivers to have licenses or wear helmets. Often, spectators are only feet away from the track. Go-carts normally have exposed gas tanks, 300-degree exhaust pipes, and tires that spit off chunks of hot rubber into drivers' legs and arms.

In go-cart vehicle accident settlements, compensable injuries include abrasions (scrapes), contusions (bruises), lacerations (cuts), minor burns, and whiplash. More serious injuries are second- and third-degree burns, brain concussions, skull fractures, disk hernias, spinal cord injuries, and death.

Factors in go-cart accidents include:

  • Poor track design, inadequate maintenance of engines and brakes, and steering malfunctions
  • Manufacturer's defective parts and equipment
  • Driver recklessness and inexperience
  • Absence of fencing between spectators and drivers

Who's liable?

  • Concession operator and owner
  • Property owner
  • Drivers and owners of other go-carts causing the collision
    (If the driver is a minor, his parents can be held liable.)

All-terrain Vehicles

Of all off-road vehicles, all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs, result in the highest number of injuries and fatalities each year. The purpose of ATVs is to drive on designated off-road courses, over hills and mountains, traversing rocks, on beaches, and maneuvering in forested areas.

ATVs come in three-, four- and even six-wheel versions. Their speeds can reach up to 45 miles an hour and they can weigh up to 1,000 pounds. Most states don't require a driver's license to operate one, so drivers are often 15 years old or younger. An untrained, inexperienced or intoxicated driver can easily flip one over on top of himself or his passengers.

Although some new ATVs have seatbelts, there are few other safety features. Common accidents involve rollovers and collisions with other vehicles and solid objects. Injuries include lacerations, contusions, abrasions, minor burns, and whiplash. More serious injuries are broken bones, back and spinal cord injuries, brain trauma, skull fractures, second- and third-degree burns, and death.

Factors in ATV accidents include:

  • Inadequate maintenance of engines, worn brakes, steering malfunctions, etc.
  • Manufacturer's defective parts and equipment
  • Driver inexperience, intoxication, and recklessness

Who's liable?

  • Driver
  • Owner
  • Parents (if driver is minor)
  • Property owner
  • Manufacturer (if caused by a defective part)
  • Drivers and owners of other ATVs and vehicles who caused the collision

Snowmobiles

Snowmobiles serve a variety of purposes. Private parties own most of them, while businesses at vacation spots rent them out. Common snowmobiling activities include competitive racing, trail riding, "boondocking" (riding in new and often unchartered areas), carving (riding with one ski lifted from the ground), grass drags (drag racing off snow and on grassy areas), safety patrol in mountainous and forested areas, and more.

Snowmobiles can weigh more than 700 pounds and reach speeds of more than 90 miles an hour. Most don't have seatbelts. Injuries can result from high-speed rollovers and collisions with other snowmobiles and stationary objects like trees and buildings. Common snowmobile injuries include lacerations, abrasions, contusions, and whiplash. More serious injuries are brain concussions, skull fractures, broken bones, and back injuries.

Factors in snowmobile accidents include:

  • Inadequate maintenance of engines, worn brakes, steering malfunctions, etc.
  • Manufacturer's defective parts and equipment
  • Driver inexperience, intoxication, and recklessness

Who's liable?

  • Driver
  • Owner
  • Parents (if driver is minor)
  • Manufacturer
  • Property owner
  • Drivers and owners of other snowmobiles who caused the collision

Dune Buggies

Enthusiasts usually drive dune buggies on beaches and sandy dunes. Some have rollover bars and some don't, but regardless, few drivers and passengers wear helmets. Builders mostly fabricate dune buggies from parts of various vehicles. The most common dune buggy accidents are rollovers and collisions with other vehicles.

In dune buggy accidents, common injuries include burns and whiplash. More serious injuries are broken bones, concussions, skull fractures, back injuries, spinal cord injuries, and death.

Factors in dune buggy accidents include:

  • Inadequate maintenance of engines, worn brakes, steering malfunctions, etc.
  • Manufacturer's defective parts and equipment
  • Driver inexperience, intoxication, and recklessness

Who's liable?

  • Driver
  • Owner
  • Parents (if driver is minor)
  • Drivers of other vehicles who cause collision
  • Beach property owner (may be city, state, or both)

Personal Watercraft - Jet Skis

Jet skis and other personal watercraft (PWC) can reach speeds up to 70 miles per hour. Most states require operators to follow local and state boating laws. Local authorities strictly enforce laws regarding speeding, reckless driving, failing to yield, failure to wear life jackets, and intoxication. In a flip-over, the vehicle can pin a driver underneath and perhaps drown him.

The most common accidents with PWCs are collisions with other watercraft, flip-overs, crashes into docking areas, hitting sand bars, and overboard riders and passengers getting sucked into the engine. Injuries from PWC accidents include lacerations, abrasions, and contusions, sprained ligaments and tendons, and whiplash. More serious injuries are to the head, neck, and spinal cord. Death by drowning is another.

Factors causing PWC accidents include:

  • Driver intoxication, inexperience, and recklessness
  • Inadequate maintenance of engine, etc.
  • Defective parts and equipment

Who's liable?

  • Driver
  • Owner
  • Parents (if driver is minor)
  • Drivers of other watercraft who collide with the PWC

Duty of Care, Burden of Proof, and Proximate Cause

Off-road vehicle owners, drivers, and parents of minor drivers have a duty of care (responsibility) to make sure whoever drives the vehicle operates it safely so as not to injure passengers and spectators. Property owners have a duty of care to make sure the land where enthusiasts drive the vehicles is free from dangerous conditions. Manufacturers of the vehicle's parts and equipment have a duty of care to make the vehicle safe.

In almost all of these cases, the law considers a breach (violation) of the parties' duty of care to be negligence.

To receive compensation for injuries in an off-road vehicle accident claim, you have the burden to prove what was the direct and proximate (legally acceptable) cause of your injuries and resulting damages. Those resulting damages are your medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, lost wages, and your pain and suffering. To do this requires evidence.

Some of the most effective evidence in off-road accidents is:

  • Witness statements
  • Proof of the driver's age
  • Admissions against interest the driver utters, such as, "I didn't see that hill coming up," or "I had too much to drink," or "I lost control."
  • Photographs of open containers of beer or other alcohol, the area where the accident occurred (including the vehicle's position), obscured signs, the point of collision, damaged parts of the vehicle, and the driver.
  • Incident reports from responding police or fire and rescue personnel
  • Medical narratives from emergency room doctors directly linking your injuries to the accident

Dealing with Insurance

If you have injuries, it's important to learn whether the driver or owner of the vehicle has insurance. The owner and driver's car insurance policy can cover many off-road vehicle accident settlements. Another source is the negligent person's homeowners policy. This is especially true when a minor causes an accident. In many cases, parents are legally responsible for injuries their children cause.

The same goes for a business or commercial property owner. Either a commercial liability policy or homeowner's insurance policy insures him. If it's a manufacturer's defect claim, you probably need an attorney.

Assumption Of Risk and Comparative Negligence

There are some exceptions to the duty of care requirement. The courts have traditionally said that drivers, passengers, and spectators injured in off-road vehicle accidents who contributed to their own injuries may not receive compensation, wholly or partially, even if the driver or owner's negligence is clear. The courts based their decisions on the theory of assumption of the risk.

Assumption Of the Risk

If you knew the operator of the off-road vehicle was inexperienced or intoxicated, and you still mounted the vehicle as a passenger, you assumed the risk of injury. If you were trespassing or knew the property was dangerous and ignored the danger, you may have again assumed the risk.

In off-road vehicle accident cases, the courts have said:

...where a driver or passenger knows a danger exists and voluntarily places himself in that danger, he will have assumed the risk of injury and therefore may be wholly or partially barred from recovery of damages."

Example of assuming the risk

John asked Bill to take a ride on his new ATV. Bill knew John just purchased the ATV and had no experience driving it. Bill also knew John had drunk a few beers, but he decided to go for a ride anyway. Within minutes, John ran the ATV into a local pond.

Bill was seriously injured and his medical bills totaled more than $10,000. In an ensuing lawsuit Bill filed, the jury found Bill assumed the risk when he got on the ATV knowing John had no experience and had drunk a few beers. The jury awarded Bill nothing.

Comparative Negligence

Another legal theory regarding recovery in off-road vehicle accident settlements is comparative negligence. Here's how it works: If your negligence contributed to the accident, the insurance company compares the degree or percentage of your negligence to the degree or percentage of the driver's, owner's, etc. Your compensation drops accordingly.

Example of comparative negligence

John owned an ATV. John invited his friend Bill as his passenger while they rode on an off-road course. John told Bill the brakes were in bad shape. He also told Bill it was his dad's ATV, and John never drove it or any other ATV before.

A few minutes later, John ran the ATV into a tree. Bill and John were both seriously injured. In the lawsuit, John's attorney convinced the jury Bill knew the brakes were dangerous and John had no experience driving the ATV. The jury found John's negligence was 50 percent and Bill's was 50 percent. Bill's damages included medical bills and other losses totaling $5,000. The jury awarded Bill 50 percent of his damages, or $2,500.

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