When two non-lawyer Montana residents are talking about an automobile accident, one of the first questions to be asked is “Whose fault was it?” Almost all adult drivers in the state understand that liability for damages caused by an auto accident depends upon who was at fault. But what does fault mean?
As used by judges and lawyers, the term “fault” means “negligence,” but that synonym is not very helpful in understanding how the law allocates fault for auto accidents or any other event that inflicts damages on another party. In Montana, as well as the other 49 states, the law of negligence begins with the concept of “duty”: the law requires that everyone has a duty to use due care in dealing with others. This rule applies to driving a car, constructing a building or to any of the multitude of activities that humans can engage in. If a party is proven to have breached the duty of using due care, i.e., was negligent, that person can be required to pay damages to any party injured by this failure. The categories of damages are usually medical expenses, loss of income, pain and suffering and any other pecuniary lost inflicted by breach of the duty of due care.
Montana and a number of other states invoke the rule of comparative fault, that is, the person seeking damages cannot recover unless he or she is assigned a lower percentage of fault by the jury than is assigned to the other driver. In other words, if the jury determines that the plaintiff was 51% or more responsible for the accident, the plaintiff cannot recover. If the plaintiff’s percentage of fault is less than the defendant’s fault, the plaintiff can recover, but the damages will be reduced according to the jury’s allocation of fault.
In cases involving three or more parties, the allocation of damages based upon the jury’s finding of fault can become very complicated. The advice of an experienced personal injury lawyer can help ensure that a person receives all of the damages to which he or she is entitled.