Liability and Injury Compensation in Side-impact Collisions

The National Safety Council reports side-impact crashes, also referred to as roadside, or T-bone collisions, are second only to head-on collisions in the number of serious injuries and fatalities they cause each year. During a side-impact collision, one car hits the other in a perpendicular direction. It takes the human body a split second to catch up with the intervening force.

When this happens, a whip-like snapping effect violently tosses the driver from side to side and back and forth. Airbags and seatbelts may help, but the human body can absorb only so much force. When the force exceeds the body’s ability to assimilate it, injuries ranging from sprains and whiplash, to fractures, organ damage, and even death can occur.

The impact also frequently results in secondary collisions with other vehicles and stationary objects. Consequences like your car slamming into bridge abutments, concrete lane dividers, trees, etc. are common in side-impact accidents. Rollovers can also occur when the impact is strong enough.

In this section, we cover:

  • Causes of side-impact collisions and who’s liable
  • Common injuries in T-bone collisions
  • Effective evidence gathering techniques – proving negligence
  • When to hire an attorney

Proving who’s responsible, or liable for a side-impact crash is the basis of any successful personal injury claim. To establish liability, you must prove the other driver was negligent. Proving negligence begins at the scene of an accident. Examining the causes of the collision is the first step in identifying the other driver’s fault.

Causes and Liability

Failing to come to a complete stop at a four-way intersection
“Rolling” through a stop sign is illegal. When a driver fails to come to a complete stop at an intersection, he violates the traffic code. If the collision happens while you’re legally in the intersection, his violation of the traffic code is per se, or automatic, proof of his negligence.

Failing to yield
When stop signs are in place at a four-way intersection, the traffic code requires one driver to yield to another. When two or more cars arrive at the intersection simultaneously, determining who has the right of way and who must yield becomes more difficult. Most states’ traffic laws require drivers who enter intersections simultaneously to permit the driver on the left to proceed first.

Running a red light
Running a red light is illegal. It too is clear evidence of per se negligence. Because most drivers pick up speed to get through a light just before it turns red, the force of a driver-side collision can turn deadly.

Turning across traffic lanes
When a driver is in a turning lane and can legally make a turn across traffic, he must wait until it’s safe to do so. Rarely will a driver who cuts across traffic escape liability.

Not gauging oncoming traffic when making a right turn at an intersection
Most drivers look both ways before making a right turn at a red light or stop sign. Sometimes that’s not enough. All too often, drivers can’t see speeding cars coming from the side until it’s too late. Traffic codes require drivers who are about to turn right into oncoming traffic to wait until it is safe to join the flow of traffic.

Although the excessive speed of the driver already in the lane of traffic is useful in mitigating (easing) the first driver’s negligence, the courts usually say the driver who is about to enter into the lane of traffic must yield to any oncoming vehicles.

Recklessness and aggressive driving
Reckless behavior and aggressive driving often go hand in hand. Many drivers use their cars as “equalizers.” When they’re intent on making a point, they often purposely ignore other drivers who are legally in an intersection. Often, they use this tactic to scare or intimidate the other. Sometimes though, the intimidation results in a collision. When it does, the reckless and aggressive driver is liable.

Talking on cell phones and texting
Talking on cell phones and texting while driving is quite dangerous. Business and personal matters can take a driver’s eyes, concentration, and focus off driving. While talking or texting, the driver may fail to see another driver.

This often occurs at entrances and exits from shopping malls and other public places where there are no traffic lights or stop signs. The driver may not see other cars coming from the side until it’s too late. Cars entering and leaving parking lots and other public places must yield to the flow of traffic.

Driving while intoxicated or impaired
Intoxication impairs a driver’s reflexes, sight, and thinking abilities. Intoxicated drivers often fail to look for other vehicles coming from the side. If they do see other vehicles, their intoxication often causes them to misjudge the oncoming driver’s speed and location. Intoxication is another example of per se negligence.

Braking and steering failure
Equipment failure is a less frequent, but equally dangerous cause of side-impact collisions. When brakes or steering fails and the driver can’t stop, he may enter the intersection when other cars are bearing down.

Bad weather, including ice, snow, fog, and rain
During severe weather, it’s sometimes impossible for a driver to stop safely. Sliding past a stop sign or traffic signal into an intersection is an invitation to a side-impact accident.

Common Injuries

Face lacerations (cuts), contusions (bruises), and abrasions (scrapes)
Flying glass and shards of broken sharp metal and plastic can deeply cut the face. Airbags can cause scalp and facial burns.

Fractured legs, arms, wrists, and hands
The force of the impact can cave in the driver-side door. Depending on its location, the cave-in can easily fracture the driver’s legs, arms, wrists, and hands.

Sprained and torn muscles, ligaments, and tendons – the whiplash effect
Muscles, ligaments, and tendons can stretch well beyond their natural limit. More severe impacts can result in their tearing, especially in the neck and shoulder area. The unnatural jolting and stretching of the neck and shoulder from side to side and forward and backward is comparable to a whip effect. This injury is commonly known as whiplash.

Hip and shoulder displacement, fractured ribs and clavicles (collarbones)
The hip joint often takes the brunt of a mid-door impact. The joint is susceptible to socket dislocation and fracture. The impact can violently turn the shoulders well past their maximum intended radius.

Because the rib cage is located close to the outer part of the chest area, it’s highly vulnerable to hitting the door handle, steering column, and steering wheel. The clavicle bones between the neck and shoulder area are some of the weakest bones in the human body, so they easily fracture.

Herniated disks and spinal compression
Back injuries are quite common in driver-side impact collisions. The force of the impact can rupture the disks located in and around the spinal cord, and often results in disk herniation. The compression of the back downward into the seat exerts tremendous pressure on the spinal cord.

Internal organs
A collision can tear away the body’s internal organs from important blood vessels. Sharp objects like door handles and steering wheels can lacerate the spleen, liver, and kidneys.

Punctured eardrums
When the car has no side airbags, a side impact can force the driver’s ear against the window and crush the outer flesh. When a side airbag deploys, it explodes outward against the driver’s face and ear. The magnitude of the force can puncture, burn, and lacerate the eardrum. Tinnitus (painful or annoying ringing in the ear) can also result from side airbag deployment.

Severed and bruised brain stem and spinal cord
The human spinal cord attaches to the brain stem. A violent impact can severely bruise them both. In some cases, when the impact is forceful enough, it severs the spinal cord, resulting in paralysis or death.

Brain concussions, skull fractures, and other severe brain damage
In a side impact, the driver’s head can strike the vehicle frame or window, causing the brain to hit the inside of the skull. Depending upon the force of the impact, the driver can suffer anything from a mild concussion to a skull fracture and brain damage.

Proving Negligence with Evidence

Once you examine the cause of the side-impact collision and identify the other driver’s negligence, you have to begin to assemble evidence to support your contention. To prove the other driver’s negligence requires solid evidence. The evidence must show:

  • The at-fault driver had a legal duty of care (obligation) to drive safely.
  • His negligence breached (violated) his duty of care.
  • His breach was the direct and proximate (legally acceptable) cause of the accident and your injuries.

The courts have decided all drivers have a duty of care. This means each driver must drive safely while looking out for other drivers, pedestrians, traffic signals, etc. A driver’s failure to drive safely is negligent behavior and a breach of his duty of care. When his breach of duty is the direct and proximate cause of a collision, he becomes liable for the injuries he causes.

Types of Evidence

Police reports
Side-impact collisions almost always require police assistance. Whether to coordinate fire and rescue activities or to clear traffic, it’s safe to say the police will come to the accident scene. The police report will contain witness contact information, a diagram of the collision, and a notation of any traffic citations the officer issued to the other driver. You can pick up a copy from the police station a few days after the collision.

Unless absolutely necessary, don’t move the cars. Photograph the cars as they are. Make sure you take pictures of the intersection, including traffic signals and any stop or yield signs. Photographs of skid marks are also very important. Also, if applicable, photograph empty beer bottles or open containers of alcohol in or near the other driver’s car.

Witness statements
Write down witnesses’ names and contact information. Note any information they may have that tends to show the other driver was at fault. If they saw him run a red light or roll through an intersection, make sure you note it.

If you or the witnesses heard the other driver say anything that tends to make him responsible, note that as well. Statements like “I didn’t see him coming,” or “I’m sorry, it’s my fault” are considered admissions against interest (not in his favor) and are strong evidence of liability.

Medical records
The connection between the accident and your injuries is crucial. Make sure you ask your treating doctors to make clear in their medical reports the collision was the sole and direct cause of your injuries. This is important in case the insurance company later tries to say your injuries just worsened previous injuries. Get copies of your medical charts.

Do you need an attorney?

In personal injury claims, there are two types of injuries. They are soft tissue and hard injuries. Soft tissue injuries are less serious. Some examples are cuts and bruises, edema (water buildup), minor burns, minor concussions, whiplash, etc. More serious hard injuries include broken bones, brain damage and hemorrhaging, skull fractures, second- or third-degree burns, scarring, amputations, spinal cord injuries, etc.

If your injuries are soft tissue, you can probably handle your own insurance claim. If you retain an attorney, he legally must pay your medical bills from the settlement amount. After paying your medical bills and deducting his attorney’s fees, there may be little or nothing left to cover your pain and suffering.

It’s altogether different in the more serious hard injury claims – lawsuits are commonplace. There’s just too much at stake. It’s likely your attorney will have to aggressively seek evidence from the other driver and his insurance company.

A lawsuit gives him the legal authority to subpoena crucial evidence in your favor. He can take sworn depositions (recorded statements) of the other driver, passengers, witnesses, doctors, etc. The interrogatories (written questions) and requests for production (legal requests for all documents) he drafts give your attorney even greater access to information vital to your case.

See an example of a side-impact collision demand letter here.

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