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Posted in: Auto Accident

When Two Mistakes Collide: "Not at Fault" May Still Mean "Breach of Duty"

Jun 23, 2022

When we think of car accidents and liability, we usually think only in terms of the drivers involved. This makes sense. After all, drivers are responsible for operating their vehicles safely, and if an accident occurs, one or both drivers may be at fault.

However, some situations are more complicated.

In fact, it’s possible for a driver to be found liable for injuries caused by a car accident—but not be at fault for the crash.

This is exactly what happened in one of our recent Dunnion Law cases, in which an injured 10-year-old special education student won a $7.85 million settlement. Nearly the entire settlement came from the insurance carrier of a party that was not even found to be at-fault for the accident that resulted in her catastrophic injury.

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In this blog, we’ll take a closer look at this case along with some things you should know if you or someone you love is catastrophically injured in a car accident.

A Catastrophic Car Accident

The case revolves on an accident that occurred in March of 2019. An Alisal Union School District (AUSD) special education van carrying four students was struck head-on by an oncoming passenger vehicle driven by Antonio Gill.

Three of the student passengers were properly secured in the van, and did not suffer extensive injuries. However, the fourth student was more severely injured. She not only sustained massive internal injuries to her colon and intestines in the collision, but also broke her lower back.

Gill, the driver of the passenger vehicle, was determined to be at-fault for the accident itself. His insurance paid $100,000 to the student and her family. However, the case investigation revealed that Gill was not to blame for the severity of the student’s permanent spinal and internal injuries.

So who was? The school van driver, Andrea Salviejo, and a student aide, Brenda Hernandez.

Why? Because, according to Dunnion Law’s investigations, the two district employees had not adhered to AUSD’s safety protocols. The employees failed to follow these measures designed to ensure the proper restraint and safety of students. In doing so, they were in breach of duty.

Catastrophic—and Preventable—Accident Injuries

The case investigation determined that Salviejo and Hernandez had failed to properly secure the injured student’s seat belt across her chest. Because Salviejo and Hernandez had failed their responsibility, the injured student suffered serious, pediatric lap-belt injuries during the collision, which might have otherwise been avoided.

The student required a series of emergency and follow-up surgeries for damage and lacerations to her internal organs and back. She’ll also need ongoing care for the rest of her life.

According to medical experts, these injuries could have been lessened—or prevented entirely—had the van driver and aide taken the necessary precautions. As a result, AUSD’s insurance carrier paid a $7.75 million settlement to the student and her family, in addition to the $100,000 paid by Gill, the at-fault driver, receiving a total settlement of $7.85 million.

At-Fault Versus Liability

In order to understand the outcome, it’s important to understand the concepts of “fault” and “liability.” In simplest terms, “fault” refers to the cause of the accident, and has four basic levels: negligence, recklessness, intentional misconduct, and strict liability. As defined by Law.com, liability refers to “legal responsibility for one’s actions or omissions.”

In this case, while there was no question that Gill caused the accident, he was not deemed liable for the extent of the student’s injuries. Rather, this was due to the employees’ negligence—defined by Law.com as “failure to exercise the care toward others which a reasonable or prudent person would do in the circumstances, or taking action which such a reasonable person would not." Because Salviejo and Hernandez failed to perform their duties, the school district that employed them were deemed negligent.

So, while neither Salviejo nor Hernandez were at-fault for the actual motor vehicle accident, their negligence was responsible for the severity of the student’s injuries. As such, they—and their employer, AUSD—were liable.

This is just one example of a case in which a driver was not completely liable for the catastrophic injury incurred during a crash. This can also happen for passengers who sustain injuries on public transportation. While the drivers may sometimes be at-fault, there may be other potential areas of liability related to faulty equipment, poorly maintained roads, or other factors. 

The Importance of Expert Legal Representation

This case highlights the complexity of the law, which is why hiring experienced legal counsel like Dunnion Law is critical. On the surface, Gill’s at-fault status would appear to make his insurance carrier responsible for reparations.

But, the numbers speak for themselves. While Gill’s insurance carrier paid just $100,000, AUSD's insurance carrier paid a staggering $7.75 million. Given the profound and irreparable harm caused to the special ed student and the fact that she’ll need ongoing care for her catastrophic injury, this compensation will be vitally important to her and her family.

As the law firm representing the student, Dunnion Law’s team of personal injury attorneys skillfully navigated the complexities of this case in order to ensure that all responsible parties were held accountable for the client’s injuries.

Dunnion Law Managing Partner, Connell Dunnion, Esq., noted that “as parents, we entrust the school district and its employees to undertake our students’ physical safety as part of its fundamental responsibilities. This case sadly underscores the devastating impact to students when the necessary precautions and protocols aren’t followed.”

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