Car Accidents Involving Children: What You Should Know If Your Child Was in an Accident in North Carolina
By Adam J. Langino, Esq.
Road accidents are one of the leading causes of death in the United States.1 Unfortunately, most of these deaths and car accident injuries are preventable. If your child has suffered due to a car accident in North Carolina, you may be looking for answers, consolation, or other forms of relief to best care for an injured child or help you grieve the loss of your loved one. This article will provide a brief overview of ways to prevent child injuries in car accidents, as well as how to respond if your child is hurt or killed due to a road accident.
Child Vehicle Safety Statistics
About fifty children under the age of 12 are fatally injured in a car crash each year in North Carolina.2 This number has come down over the years due to safer roads, vehicles, and other safety efforts (i.e., better car seats, more knowledge about child car safety, etc.). In 2020, there were a total of 79 vehicle-related fatalities under the age of 18. The majority (49) of the fatalities were passengers, while 17 were drivers, and 13 were outside of vehicles during the accident (ex: pedestrian, bicyclist, or other motor device).3 Among the 17 drivers, 7 were only 15-years old or younger. The vehicles driven included ATVs, golf carts, passenger cars, pickup trucks, and an SUV.
Drugs and alcohol contributed to 5 motor vehicle accidents that involved children. A more significant contributing factor in child deaths from vehicle-related accidents was improper restraint or nonuse of seatbelts. Of the 17 child drivers who were killed in accidents, only 4 were properly restrained or using seat belts, and of the 48 child passengers killed, only 18 were properly restrained.
The 2020 statistics are mostly in line with annual crash report numbers over the past five years. 4 The majority of crashes and crash-related deaths typically occur from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Due in large part to Covid cutting down on the number of drivers on the road and time spent commuting to and from school, the 2020 traffic crash statistics were down from 2019. However, though total crashes decreased 9% in 2020, fatalities increased 12.8% over 2019 numbers.
Child Safety Guidance
In light of these statistics, the threat to your child’s safety may feel overwhelming. However, there are a number of steps you can take to protect and minimize the likelihood of serious injury to your child.
The most obvious lesson from the statistics is the importance of properly securing your child in the car. Proper restraints and buckling up would make about 40% of child car-crash fatalities preventable. Depending on your child’s age, proper restraints could mean using the right size car seat, facing the car seat in the recommended direction, properly installing the car seat, or simply ensuring your child is buckled up regardless of where they are sitting. If your child is in a car seat or booster seat, be sure you are using a seat that is appropriate for their age, height, and weight, and that you have followed the manufacturer’s instructions for installation and use. Children grow and change constantly, so staying on top of their size and safety needs can help keep your child safer in the car. Protective measures also extend to accidents involving bicycles. If your child is riding a bicycle – whether on a neighborhood street or a busier road – be sure they are using an appropriately sized helmet.5
Staying educated about the best safety precautions to take for your child can be confusing at times. Safety recommendations change, car seats may be found to be unsafe due to product defects, and North Carolina’s state statutes need updating to be consistent with federal laws. BuckleUpNC’s recommendations6 are current and in line with the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, so they’re a quality resource to look to rather than relying on the less up to date laws in North Carolina. For example, North Carolina statutes only provide that children under the age of five should ride in the rear seats, while national guidelines and BuckleUpNC recommend children 12 and under ride in the back. Additionally, BuckleUpNC recommends placing infants in rear-facing car seats, but North Carolina statutes don’t specify this precaution.
These are ways in which you can protect your child if another driver causes a crash. It is also important to consider the steps you can take to protect your child as the driver: do not drive while impaired by drugs or alcohol (or allow your child to be driven by someone else who is), obey speed limits, stay alert when crossing streets with your child, and avoid distractions while driving. Children can be distracting passengers at any age, but you can still take steps to minimize your other distractions as a driver. For example, refrain from texting or using your phone while driving, and ensure your younger passengers are secured and occupied as needed to keep them from interfering with your efforts to drive safely.
Who Is Responsible If Your Child Is Injured in a Car Accident?
Parents or caregivers can be held liable for car accidents that injure their children if their negligence caused the accident. For example, driving without a license, going too fast/failure to maintain control, distracted driving, and driving under the influence can all make a parent or guardian liable for their child’s injuries in the event of an accident. Adults have a responsibility to act with a reasonable standard of care when it comes to their children, and failing to take safety precautions can lead to liability for harm caused. In that case, a personal representative of the child (like a court-appointed guardian ad litem) could bring a lawsuit against the responsible caregiver for pain and suffering.
In North Carolina, courts apply a pure contributory negligence standard. This means that if you are found even 1% responsible for an accident, you cannot collect any damages. However, failure to wear a seat belt does not constitute contributory negligence. Courts have reasoned that the laws enacted to require use of seat belts and child car seats were intended to encourage safety, rather than to protect a reckless driver from being held accountable for an accident they caused if one of the passengers wasn’t wearing a seat belt.
Child passengers are subject to a specific statutory provision, G.S. 20-137.1, which provides that every driver transporting children under 16 years of age shall “have all such passengers properly secured in a child passenger restraint system or seat belt” which meets applicable federal standards. 7 The statute goes on to specify requirements for appropriate child passenger restraint systems, though national standards recommend stricter safety measures be taken for children. The statutory requirements for securing children explicitly do not constitute negligence per se or contributory negligence per se, nor shall it be used as evidence of negligence or contributory negligence.8 This means that, though use of seat belts and car seats are vital to protecting your child’s safety on the roads, the failure to use them properly cannot be used to prevent your child from recovering damages after a car accident.
Other parties that may be responsible for a child’s injury after a road accident include but are not limited to the following: the driver of the vehicle the child was a passenger in; the driver of the other vehicle involved in the accident; pavement marking companies; the state or city depending on what safety precautions were taken (i.e., school zone signs, stop signs, stop lights, crossing guards, etc.); public transportation drivers; school bus drivers and districts; product manufacturers (i.e., defective car seats, air bag failures, brake failures, etc.).
What Should You Do If Your Child Is Injured in a Car Accident in North Carolina?
A car accident is a stressful experience on its own, but when your child is involved and injured in any way, the chaos and emotional toll can make it hard to know exactly what to do next. Seeking medical attention and treatment as needed is vital. Often, due to shock and the nature of soft tissue injuries, the full extent of the damage done may not be clear at first. Follow up with a doctor at the first sign of changes or pain escalation. Especially if there are any injuries, stop and report the accident to the police to keep a record of the accident. You should maintain an accurate record of everything without speculation; document everything with pictures and videos of the accident, injuries, damage to the car, debris, skid marks, road signage or lights, and anything else that may be relevant to the accident. Exchange contact information with everyone else involved, as well as potential witnesses. Police will help with this, but it’s a good idea to keep a record for yourself, too. While you wait for police, protect yourself and the accident scene by using flashers or flares. Call your insurance company, but before providing a statement for your insurance company, speak to an attorney to protect your rights and your child’s rights. Lawsuits can take a long time to resolve, so you’ll want to keep detailed and organized records of the effects of the accident over time.
As a parent or guardian of a child, it can be overwhelming that your child’s health and safety often feel out of your control. You can take steps to minimize harm to your child, but when an accident happens, you need to advocate on your child’s behalf. Hiring an attorney to advocate for you and your child’s rights will make navigating the aftermath of an accident less chaotic and give you more time to care for your injured child or grieve after a tragedy. The same types of compensation will be available for your child, including medical bills (past, present, and future), pain and suffering compensation, loss of future wages because of a disability, and compensation for mental trauma.
I am sorry if you are reading this because your child was injured or killed in a road accident. I hope that you found the above helpful. As you can see, child injury claims have different considerations than other types of lawsuits. This is why it’s so important to hire an experienced lawyer to help you. Over my career, I have successfully resolved many child injury claims arising out of car accidents. I am licensed to practice law in North Carolina and Florida, and I co-counsel claims in other states. If you would like to learn more about me or my practice, click here. If you want to request a free consultation, click here. As always, stay safe and stay well.
8 Chaney v. Young, 122 N.C. App. 260 (N.C. Ct. App. 1996) (holding that evidence of non-use of seatbelt with a child injury is not admissible to affect jury determination of negligence or damages).