Car accidents are a result of negligence. That is, there’s no mens rea – no intent.
Negligence in essence is the failure to take proper care in doing something. It’s being careless.
In personal injury cases, the wrongdoing is usually negligence or carelessness. Another way of broadly looking at negligence is when something occurs when one person acts or fails to act carelessly, which somehow (either directly or indirectly) causes some type of injury or harm to another person. Negligence often comes down to a failure to act prudently when you owe another person a duty to do so.
So, for example, in car crashes, the defendant drove his car too fast, followed too closely, passed a red light, etc. These are things the defendant did that he should have not done. Or the defendant did not see what was there to be seen, like another vehicle or pedestrian, did not turn on his headlights at night, etc. These are things that the defendant failed to do that he should have done.
Violating a traffic law (NYS Vehicle and Traffic Laws, referred to as the VTL) is negligence per se, as it violates a statute. This is separate and apart from common law negligence. Bear in mind that you do not need to violate the VTL to be negligent. Furthermore, you may also be recklessly negligent. That is, the defendant knowingly engaged in that something. For example, the defendant knew he was going out drinking and knew that he would drink a lot and knew that he would drive himself afterwards and did so in fact which resulted in an accident. This constitutes reckless negligence. Because reckless negligence is a higher standard of wrongdoing, it usually is subject to punitive damages (in addition to pain and suffering).
Personal injury cases are predominantly the result of carelessness. That does not mean that the defendant is a bad person or did something bad (usually). It simply means that he was careless. That he misjudged say distance or speed. Or, that he failed to exercise prudent care. For example, say there’s snow on the roadway, the defendant is charged with the legal obligation of driving his vehicle prudently under the circumstances. So, for example, if the speed limit is 30 mph and the defendant was travelling 25 mph in the prevailing snow conditions when in fact he should have been travelling 10 mph, and caused an accident because his car slid or lost control, the defendant is liable 100%. This is common when the weather or environment may be a factor for the motorist. Drivers are required by law to exercise reasonable and prudent care under the circumstances and given the environment. This is applicable not only to snow and ice but also to rain and fog and roadway design. Think about it? If drivers were not held accountable for the weather and the environment, there would be a multitude of excuses (the roads were wet, fog reduced visibility, the roadway curved, etc.).
Driving a car is a privilege (and pleasurable). But a car improperly operated can be a lethal weapon. If you’re just careless and cause an accident, recognize it – you’re not a bad person, you were negligent – and that’s why we have insurance. So drive with care and attention.