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Traffic safety violations can raise negligence questions

When one vehicle collides with another the issue of whether either or both drivers were negligent will usually need to be considered, and as we have seen in an earlier post West Virginia is a comparative fault state. But sometimes another possibility can occur in connection with an accident when either or both drivers are also found to have violated statutes while getting into a collision.

As a hypothetical example, assume that one car runs a red light and hits another car that was passing through the intersection on a green light. The driver of the car that ran the red light is cited by the police for reckless driving, and for driving with a suspended license. In situations where such statutory violations are issued, the possibility of such violations becoming evidence of negligence is one that needs to be taken into account.

In West Virginia, a violation of a traffic safety law can be prima facie evidence of negligence. But this is subject to some different considerations, including:

  • The violation of the statute must be what the law calls the "proximate cause" of the injury. Meaning, the injury would not have occurred but for the statutory violation.
  • The prima facie presumption of negligence is not the same as "negligence per se," a doctrine that holds that some statutory violations are considered negligence as a matter of law, and not of fact. This distinction is important because negligence per se would not be a question for the jury to decide, while a showing of prima facie negligence is a jury question.
  • There are some defenses against a showing of prima facie negligence for a traffic safety law violation, such as that the violator was acting as a reasonable person would under the circumstances and desired to comply with the law (for example, rushing a seriously injured relative to the hospital at the time of the accident).

So in our hypothetical above, in West Virginia the evidence of driving recklessly and with a suspended license could be construed as contributing to a showing of prima facie negligence, but the driver would still have the opportunity to try to rebut the evidence and ultimately the jury would still need to decide the question.

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