Car accidents and civil liability

Generally, the thought of a car accident evokes a victim and an at-fault driver.

However, the driver at fault may not be solely responsible for the accident. Instead, the actions and inactions of other third parties, such as government entities, road maintenance crews and employers, may also have contributed to the accident. When a car accident occurs, it is important to consider the potential liability of these third parties. This will help ensure that compensation is available for medical expenses, loss of income and other damages an innocent victim may suffer.

The role of “negligence”

The liability of a third party in the event of an accident depends on the “negligence” of the potentially responsible third party. Individuals are negligent when they do not act with reasonable care and their actions cause injury. A party’s actions or inactions may also be negligent when they fail to comply with a law, regulation or policy. A negligent party is legally liable for damages caused by its negligence, unless a legal defense applies.

A potential defense in North Carolina is the doctrine of “contributory negligence”. North Carolina is one of the few states to recognize contributory negligence. According to this doctrine, if an injured party has negligently contributed to the accident or to his injuries – even in the slightest way – the injured party’s negligence completely prevents his recovery. However, exceptions to the contributory negligence defense may apply, including the doctrine of “clear last chance” or conduct of a liable party constituting “gross negligence”.

Therefore, to hold a third party liable for a car accident, the injured party must show that the third party was negligent and that the third party’s negligence was a cause of the accident.

Possible third parties responsible in a car accident

Besides the at-fault drivers themselves, depending on the facts of each case, there may be many other at-fault third parties who are also responsible for a car accident:

  • Government entities. Entities responsible for the design or maintenance of roads may be responsible for creating unsafe driving conditions, including the absence of necessary stop signs or red lights, overgrown vegetation, inadequate road signs and lack of pedestrian crossings.
  • Contractors and construction crews. Contractors, subcontractors and construction crews can be responsible for creating unsafe driving conditions, such as poorly designed pavements; carelessly designed construction plans, including traffic management plans; improper construction signage; misplaced warning signs; improper use of construction equipment; and careless construction that creates hazards for motorists.
  • Road maintenance crews. These crews can be responsible for an accident when their actions or inactions cause the accident, including failing to place proper signage and warnings for drivers and negligent use of maintenance equipment.
  • Employers. When employees cause an accident while acting in the course and scope of their employment, their employer may be held liable for the accident. It is important to determine who owns the offending driver’s vehicle, the offending driver’s employment status, why the offending driver was driving at the time of the accident, and whether the offending driver was qualified to operate the vehicle.
  • Bars and Restaurants. If a bar or restaurant that supplies alcohol overserves someone they know might be driving and that person causes an accident, the bar or restaurant may be held liable.
  • negligent mandate. If the owner of a vehicle allows someone else to drive their vehicle knowing that the driver is inexperienced, incompetent, unlicensed or has a history of reckless driving, the owner may be liable for an accident caused by the driver.
  • Parents. Under the family purpose doctrine in North Carolina, parents can be held liable for car accidents caused by their children.
  • Passengers. A passenger can be held responsible for an accident if, for example, the passenger interfered with the driver’s ability to drive the vehicle or encouraged an unfit driver to drive the vehicle.
  • Product manufacturers. The manufacturer of a vehicle or its parts may be liable for an accident if a product defect in the vehicle itself, such as a manufacturing or design fault, causes an accident.

Proceedings against wrongful third parties

Filing a claim against a third party is a unique and complicated process. An injured party needs an experienced lawyer to handle these cases. Depending on the third party involved, an injured party may need to file a complaint in two different court systems, for example, a state or federal court and the Industrial Commission. Depending on the parties responsible for an accident, different laws and regulations may guide the standards of care or standards of negligence involved. These claims may also require unique discovery tools, such as FOIA requests.

If there are multiple responsible parties in a car accident, for example, a negligent driver and a negligent third party, North Carolina follows the rule of joint and several liability. Under joint and several liability, each party that was negligent is liable for the full amount of the injured party’s damages.

Resolving these claims and maximizing the injured party’s recovery is a complicated process. The injured party must use an appropriate strategy in the resolution sequence when there is more than one negligent party. For example, improper documents used in early settlements can negatively impact, or even prevent, an injured party’s recovery from potentially greater recoveries from other third parties who contributed to the accident.

Damages of an injured party

Once the injured party proves that a third party was negligent and that this negligence caused the car accident, the injured party’s damages must be assessed. A court awards damages to make an injured person “whole” under the law. Although no amount of money can ever compensate someone for serious and permanent injury or death, a monetary payment is the only option available in our civil law system. A negligent party or its insurance company, if any, is responsible for paying such damages to the injured party.

With bodily injury, there are several types of damages that may apply. “Economic” damages include past and present medical bills, as well as all other future medical expenses. An injured party may also be entitled to lost wages or a claim for diminished future earning capacity due to continuing health problems resulting from their injuries.

“Non-economic” damages are intended to compensate the injured party for pain and suffering, scarring or disfigurement, loss of use of a body part, or permanence associated with any persistent injury. It is up to the parties (or their insurance companies, if applicable), a judge or jury to determine a reasonable amount of compensation for such damages based on the specific facts of a case.


Many factors can contribute to a car accident, including the actions or inactions of a third party, who was not even in the offending driver’s vehicle. When an at-fault driver and another party, such as a government contractor or the at-fault driver’s employer, cause an accident and someone is injured, both negligent parties are legally liable for the damages caused. These cases are very complex. It is imperative to involve an experienced and committed lawyer to ensure the protection of the rights of an injured party and to provide competent advice during a difficult legal proceeding.

© 2022 Ward and Smith, PA For further information regarding the issues described above, please contact Taylor B. Rodney Where Jeremy M. Wilson.

This article is not intended to give, and should not be relied upon for, legal advice in any particular circumstance or factual situation. No action should be taken on the basis of the information contained in this article without obtaining the advice of an attorney.

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