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Can a statutory violation be evidence of negligence?

Establishing negligence on the part of a defendant in a car accident case is a matter of matching the facts of your case to the legal formula setting forth the required elements for a negligence cause of action. These include showing that the defendant owed you a duty of reasonable care, breached that duty, and that you were proximately harmed as a result. Ordinarily your plaintiff’s attorney will need to work with you to assemble the evidence necessary to establish each of these elements, through a combination of witness testimony, physical and documentary evidence.

Sometimes this bolstering of a negligence case can be challenging, such as when there were no witnesses other than the parties to the accident or when your account of what happened differs materially from the other driver’s. This can require extensive legal discovery, as well as the use of expert witnesses and accident reconstructionists.

But what if there was a way to make establishing a prima facie case for negligence easier? In one sense, such a mechanism exists: it is known as “negligence per se.”

The essence of negligence per se is that the defendant driver’s violation of a law – particularly a law that is safety-related, and one under which you were of the class of persons the law was meant to protect – can itself constitute an argument that the defendant was negligent. So, for example, if the other driver was speeding, or was driving while intoxicated, or committed some other safety-related traffic violation that was a substantial factor in causing the harm that you suffered, then the burden can shift to the defendant to prove that he or she was not negligent.

We need to note that a showing of negligence per se does not mean that you will win your case, or mean in an automatic sense that the other driver was negligent. But it can be a useful tool in making your burden of proof as a plaintiff easier. To learn more about how negligence per se works under California law, we recommend that you contact a personal injury attorney licensed to practice in this state.

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