There’s a lot that can go wrong in a parking lot.
In your typical parking lot, cars, pedestrians, and shopping carts are everywhere, and moving in every direction. Drivers may be distracted by a variety of factors, including stressful errands, noisy children, or even their own cell phones.
To make matters worse, not all parking lots are well-designed or laid out. Some parking lots have poorly drawn lanes, and others have narrow parking spaces that practically beg for two cars to bump into each other.
As a result of all this, parking lot accidents can take many forms.
Unfortunately, a lot of drivers don’t think all that much about parking lot accidents. When we think of car accidents, we tend to visualize two cars crashing at high speeds at an intersection or on the open highway, not two cars bumping into each other in a parking lot.
This is a crucial oversight, because in reality parking lot accidents are extremely common. In fact, it is estimated that around 20% of all accidents occur in parking lots. Since many such accidents go unreported, the true number may be much higher.
It is, at least in part, a result of the false sense of security felt by drivers in parking lots, that such accidents do occur so often.
Admittedly, most parking lot accidents happen at low speeds and such accidents are less likely to lead to serious injury. However, this is not always the case.
Accidents in parking lots can and do lead to death and serious injury. Some drivers in a parking lot may be speeding, and even if the crash was at low speeds, this does not mean that it cannot be dangerous; the correlation of speed to severity of an accident is never perfectly 1:1.
Parking lot accidents also become a lot worse when pedestrians are involved, which, given the nature of parking lots, is common. And even if no one is seriously injured, it is likely that there has been some property damage and a good chance your car has been totaled.
The lack of public awareness of parking lot accidents is a serious problem, and that is why we’re writing this guide. For the most part, parking lot accidents are not radically different from other types of car accidents, but there are a few important points of difference, and all drivers should be aware of these points.
Parking Lots Are Private Property
The first thing that you should know about parking lot accidents is that, from a legal standpoint, parking lots are private property.
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, although it does seem counter-intuitive to many, considering that most types of parking lots are so open to the public.
This doesn’t make as much of a difference as you might think. In a parking lot, you still have a legal duty to drive safely. If you fail to do this and cause an accident, you will be found at fault. Fault will be determined according to the same general rules as it would in any other car accident.
Hit-and-run laws still apply in parking lots, and you should take all of the same steps after an accident in a parking lot which you would after an accident on a public highway, including exchanging insurance information with the other driver, tending to injured people, and reporting the accident to police and insurance.
In all of these ways, parking lot accidents are just like any other type of accident… but there are a few differences that result from the status of parking lots as private property.
For one thing, the police do not usually respond to accidents which occur on private property. This can make it harder for you later, when you have to file your insurance claim, because police reports are an important factor in an accident case.
You should try to get the police to come and make a report. Of course, they might flat-out refuse. In this situation, evidence-gathering on your part becomes more important than ever.
You should gather as much evidence as possible, including photographs and witness info. You should also write down some notes about the accident and how it happened while it is still fresh in your mind, and go and see a doctor the same day to get an assessment of any injuries you may have.
Of course, evidence gathering is a necessary step to take after just about any type of accident. But in parking lot accidents where the police do not come, this becomes absolutely crucial!
Parking lot accidents are different in another way as well: the property owner (i.e. the owner of the parking lot) is more likely to get involved.
The owner of the parking lot will vary, but it is typically either a business that is adjacent to the parking lot, or else a separate parking business (especially in the case of multi-story parking structures).
Parking lot owners have a legal duty to design and maintain a parking lot so that it is reasonably safe. This falls under the umbrella of premises liability law.
A reasonably safe parking lot must have clearly demarcated lane markers and directions of traffic, crosswalks present for pedestrians, stop signs and other traffic controls when necessary, sufficient lighting for drivers to see at night, and no other obstacles to visibility.
If poor safety conditions in a parking lot caused or contributed to your accident, then you may be eligible to sue the parking lot owner.
A lawsuit against a parking lot owner may be filed in place of a lawsuit against the other driver involved (the most common defendant in a car accident), or in addition to one, depending on whether fault was shared or was entirely due to the parking lot owner.
In this sense, lawsuits against parking lot owners are roughly analogous to defective roadway design or maintenance lawsuits, which may be filed against relevant government agencies after an accident occurs on public roadways.
However, lawsuits against parking lot owners are more common than lawsuits against the government, because it is generally easier to sue a private company than to sue the government. Lawsuits against private entities do not face the roadblocks associated with “sovereign immunity” that lawsuits against government entities do.
Not all parking lot accidents are the fault of the parking lot owner. However, some are, and if conditions in a parking lot were clearly unsafe at the time of the accident, then this may be an option for you to explore.
Determining Fault in a Parking Lot Accident
Fault in a parking lot accident is often, although not always, more complex to determine than fault in ordinary street and highway accidents.
This is because, due to the complex nature of parking lot accidents, both parties in a parking lot accident likely share some fault. This isn’t always true, and sometimes one party is entirely at fault. However, the complexity of fault in such an accident will have a bearing on the final verdict of settlement.
For instance, verdicts and settlements parking lot accidents where both parties shared fault will be reduced by the rules of comparative negligence, which decreases your damages proportionate to the degree to which you were at fault.
Other than this, we can’t speak to your specific situation without knowing the details. However, if you got in a parking lot crash, there are a few rules of thumb which may be vital in determining fault:
If one car rear ends another car, then the car in the rear will generally be at fault. This is a principle of car accident law which applies anywhere on the road, and not just in parking lots.
If one car hits another while making a left turn into a parking space, then the car which made a left turn will be at fault. This, too, is a universal principle of car accident law.
If a car backing out of a parking space hits a car driving straight in a lane, then the driver backing out of the parking space will be at fault. Drivers heading straight in a lane have right of way over cars backing out.
(Of course, some drivers will back out anyways and make other drivers wait for them. If it doesn’t lead to an accident there’s no harm in it, but if it does, then the driver backing out will be at fault. When in doubt, don’t back out!)
If two cars backing out of opposing parking spaces hit each other, then both will generally be at fault. Each one has the responsibility to look out for other cars and not back out unless it is safe to do so.
If two cars hit each other while trying to take the same parking space, fault may be shared, but the driver who had a better “claim” to the parking space may be able to get a better outcome. The driver who was turning right into the parking space has priority over the driver who was turning left, and if one was already mostly in the parking space, their claim will have precedence.
If a driver coming out of a smaller parking lane hits a driver in a larger lane, the driver in the smaller lane will likely be at fault. There are two kinds of lanes in parking lots: thoroughfares (which are larger and lead out to the street) and feeder lanes (which are smaller and lead to other thoroughfare lanes). Drivers in thoroughfare lanes have right-of-way over drivers in feeder lanes.
If a driver violates a stop or yield sign, they will likely be found at fault. Traffic signs apply in parking lots as much as anywhere.
Of course, none of these rules are hard and fast, and there are a lot of mitigating factors that can have an impact on the determination of fault. For instance, if a car was speeding, then the driver may be found partly or wholly at fault, even if they had right of way.
Pedestrian Accidents in Parking Lots
Pedestrians face unique risks in a parking lot. While most parking lot accidents are relatively minor, those involving pedestrians are an exception, due to the massive size differential between a human being and a car.
Even at a low speed, an impact between a pedestrian and a car can be fatal or result in catastrophic injury.
Most accidents in parking lots involving pedestrians are the fault of the driver. If you are a driver, you are obligated by both law and common decency to drive carefully, especially when backing out, and keep an eye out for pedestrians. Children can be particularly difficult to spot.
Pedestrians can sometimes be at fault in an accident, and cell phone use is frequently a factor in such accidents. So when you are walking through a parking lot, stay alert!
What to Do If You Are in a Parking Lot Accident
As we mentioned above, if you find yourself in a parking lot accident, you should take all of the same steps which you would take in any other accident, as well as gathering evidence and notifying the property owner of the accident.
However, parking lot accidents are a particularly difficult type of accident, and there are many factors involved. It is likely that the insurance companies will try to say that you were partly at fault. With these players, you will feel like you are in over your head, and you will not be wrong!
In such a situation, you will need a lawyer more than ever. A good personal injury attorney can do a lot to ensure that the degree to which you are found at fault is minimized.
Attorneys at TORKLAW have extensive experience dealing with parking lot accidents and helping clients navigate the difficult realm of parking accident law. If you have been in an accident, then call us for a free consultation today. You have little to lose, but you never know what you might have to gain.