Friedman, Hirschen & Miller, LLP

Carpools are a popular trend right now. Whether individuals are carpooling to work to take advantage of a high occupancy vehicle lane (HOV) on a highway or carpooling a mini-van full of kids to soccer practice, it is a great way to save cash on gas and help reduce carbon footprints.

Many drivers, therefore, would most likely deduce that carpooling is a win-win situation. But when auto accidents occur in these situations, assessing liability can be complex.

The following information, however, can provide some basic guidance on the issue.

Carpool Accidents and Contributory Negligence

Generally, the driver or owner of the car is liable in the event of a car accident. If an injury results from the accident, the driver may be accused of operating a vehicle negligently (conduct or actions that create an unreasonable risk of harm to others). In most cases, the driver has a duty to operate the vehicle with reasonable care. When a driver fail to do this he or she may be liable for any resulting injuries and required to pay for damages.

However, there are exceptions to this general rule. In some states, the legal doctrine known as contributory negligence may apply. Contributory negligence essentially says that a certain percentage of fault can be divided among everyone involved in the car accident. Depending on the situation, this can include a passenger.

Examples of Contributory Negligence of Passengers

There are a handful of circumstances where the passenger may cause a car accident. Usually, it involves distracting the driver. A passenger spilling a hot cup of coffee on the driver causing the driver to swerve into another lane or rear-end another vehicle is one example.

Another instance involves a front-seat passenger attempting to move a briefcase or something similar from the backseat into the front. The passenger accidently hits the driver, causing the driver to lose control of the vehicle and crash.

Many other circumstances like these often lead to the application of the comparative negligence doctrine.

Contributory Negligence in New York

New York has an interesting history when it comes to this specific type of negligence law. Originally, the state implemented contributory negligence and barred a victim from receiving compensation if it was determined that the victim held any responsibility for the injury.

Legislatures responded to growing criticism of this practice, ultimately passing a law that changed this practice. The state today no longer bars a victim's recovery for compensation to cover damages in this instance. Instead, damages are determined based on a complex mathematical formula.

Part of the formula assesses a passenger's role in the accident and now diminishes the amount of damages available dependant on how much the passenger's action contributed to the accident.

The passenger's percentage of fault is determined by a court or jury applying this formula while taking the facts of the case into consideration.

HOV Lanes May Lead to More Accidents

Although HOV lanes offer the promise of decreased commute time, they may lead to more accidents. In fact, research has supported that theory that these lanes lead to an increased likelihood of involvement in a car accident. Although these lanes are designed to provide an incentive for commuters to carpool in an effort to cut down on highway congestion, the Texas Transportation Institute, for example, found that the rate of injury on highways increased by 41 to 56 percent after HOV lanes were added to freeways.

According to researchers, speed is the main reason for the increase in accidents. During peak traffic times, HOV lanes experience an average of 21 to 35 mph increase in speed difference compared to the other lanes on the highway. This difference led to dangerous situations when a car attempted to merge into or out of the HOV lane. Drivers were much more likely to be involved in rear-end collisions while using HOV lanes, accidents that also can be tied to passenger distractions.

Although there are many benefits associated with carpooling it is important to be aware that, in some circumstances, passengers can be liable for injuries caused by accidents.

If you or a loved one is involved in a car accident while carpooling, discussing your situation and potential liability with an experienced car accident lawyer is advised.