In the English language, the words we use can import specific meanings. Balancing between strict definitions and semantics can lead to differing and confusing interpretations of common words. Nowhere do words matter more than in the law, where how language and words are used can be the difference between an accident victim recovering for injuries or being left without recovery.
The Car ‘Accident’
One area in which the general population has used wording without giving it much thought is in the use of the word ‘accident.’ Almost everyone who is injured in a car is considered to have been involved in a car ‘accident,’ regardless of why or how the accident happened.
Many victims advocates groups, and in fact many states, are beginning to take issue with the use of the word ‘accident.’
Semantically, the word accident tends to minimize blame on the party responsible for whatever happened. If a child accidentally knocks over a jar of cookies, he is seen as less blameworthy than a child who drops the jar when trying to steal it. In many cases, someone who is responsible for an accident has acted without intent or purpose. Accidents are often thought of as unavoidable.
Accidents May Not Be Accidents
Of course, these meanings often do not properly describe those who cause car accidents. The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration brought up this exact point at a recent conference at Harvard University. He believes that most accidents—or crashes, as he and many others prefer—are actually the result of some form of purposeful, intentional behavior, or antipathy towards due care and driving safety.
He and many others point out that when someone is purposefully distracted on their cell phone or with their in-car infotainment unit while driving, or if they get behind the wheel intoxicated, or if they drive in excess of the speed limit, that these are conscious decisions they are making. If the end result is a crash, it is not appropriate to call that an “accident.”
History Supports the Definition
In fact, history may support that position. The word accident has historically been used to exonerate employers when employees were injured on the job. By calling on the job injuries accidents, employers maintained the perception that they were without fault.
Later, car manufactures adopted the terminology again to maintain public perception that their vehicles were not dangerous or to blame for injuries. Somehow, advocates note, the word has expanded to seemingly protect negligent drivers.
Noticing the Linguistic Differences
State and local government agencies are taking notice of the language, as well. Many legal changes in the use of the word accident have come about at the urging of victim advocate groups, who find offense in the notion that someone who may purposely drive drunk or distracted, gets the public perception of being helpless or innocent by the use of the word.
Nevada’s state laws were recently changed to alter the word “accident” to “crash” when talking about automobile incidents. At least 28 states have also moved away from using the word accident when describing these incidents or when referring to them in police reports or laws that mention them.
In 2014, New York City rebuked the use of the word “accident,” finding it inapposite to the idea that many accidents are preventable.
Even the Associated Press has changed its policy, now recognizing that the word accident can connote excusing the person who may be responsible. Thus, when there is an accident that is found to be the result of negligence or where negligence is the claimed cause, A.P. has mandated that the word accident should not be used.
Not Everyone Agrees
Still, some are not as convinced that the use of the word accident is such a problem. Many feel that even if someone purposefully drives drunk or distracted, that they did not purposefully intend to crash their car, or injure anyone. That is not to say that they should be blameless, or that they are not negligent, but rather, that the use of the word ‘accident’ is appropriate.
Others have concern that the use of the word ‘crash’ may be confusing, as many people may think that crash means a larger or more serious accident. Thus, changing laws to read ‘crash’ may mislead people to think those laws only apply to more significant incidents.
Many people understand what a car accident is, as the term has been used for so long and it is so common.
Legal Standard Will Remain Unchanged
It is important to remember that the legal definition of negligence does not require that someone act purposefully or intentionally. Even a true accident can lead to someone being legally negligent, and thus, liable for a car accident. Thus, regardless of the language used, the legal analysis is the same.
Still, there is something to be said for how the language we use impacts not just the population, but juries. Words like accident can have subtle meanings to jurors. Someone who rear ends your car may have been inattentive for a mere second, with no intention to cause harm. When determining if that driver is legally negligent, using a term like “accident” can persuade jurors against liability.
Regardless of what the law says the language should be, the language used in court is still what matters when it comes to obtaining reparation for car accidents. Make sure your attorneys understand how to best convey your case to a jury. Contact Brill & Rinaldi today about a free consultation to discuss your car accident case.