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Could Tighter Auto Safety Laws Help Personal Injury Plaintiffs?

Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety, a non-profit campaigning for stricter traffic safety laws in the United States, released their 2020 Roadmap Report in January. The report takes a hard look at safe driving laws in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, noting which states are doing well and which need to improve.

The report recommends implementing 16 laws to make roads as safe as possible, including regulations that promote seat belts, motorcycle helmets, child safety seats, higher requirements for granting drivers’ licenses to teenagers, and laws against impaired and distracted driving. 

A public opinion poll revealed by the Advocates found that many people are worried about the dangers of cell phone use and drug-impaired driving. This is due to the rise in cell phone use, making distracted driving cause for public concern in terms of road safety. Similarly, the scattered legalization of marijuana has raised drug-impaired driving concerns for the public as well. Many Advocates are pushing for more regulations surrounding the two conditions in hopes that it will prevent crashes and fatalities. 

While ranking every state based on how many of the laws they have implemented, Advocates notes that no state has enacted all 16. Only New Jersey and Rhode Island come close, with 13 each.

According to the Roadmap Report, 12 new traffic laws passed legislatures in 2019, in nine states and D.C. While the landscape of road safety laws might not be changing as fast as some would like, it is evolving every year. If dedicated lobbying continues, there is no reason not to expect more change on the horizon.

Additionally, stricter criminal laws involving driving incidents could both help and hurt plaintiffs.

“The same auto accident has a good chance of launching both a civil and a criminal case,” said Attorney Michael McCready of the McCready Law Firm. “The defendant in a civil trial can’t be sued for the same incident until the criminal case is over. However, if they’re found guilty of a crime, that guilty verdict can sometimes be used as evidence against them in civil court. While they might cause some delays for personal injury lawsuits, overall, stronger laws help plaintiff attorneys build a stronger case.”

A guilty verdict can stand as evidence due to the doctrine of collateral estoppel, which roughly states that an issue — such as whether the defendant was negligent — need not be litigated again if it has already been determined in a fair trial.

However, the defendant in a civil lawsuit does not need to have committed a crime. If they hurt you, even without breaking the law, you are entitled to compensation.

That said, having state law on your side can be a powerful weapon in civil court. Depending on how strictly your state regulates its drivers, it might be easier or harder to get a judge on your side. Personal injury lawyers are well aware of this, and it is part of their jobs to stay familiar with all recent regulations that might help their clients.