By Attorney Kevin Fine
In the last two weeks, and on separate matters, I saw both a police officer and lawyer misunderstand how to decide who is at fault in a case where car one turns left into car two, but car one thinks car two ran a red light. These collisions tend to be serious and result in significant injuries, because one of the cars is coming at full speed through an intersection.
It sounds awkward, but to make it easier to follow, I will refer to the cars as the “left-turn car” and the “going straight car” in this explanation. If the going straight car makes a claim against left-turn car for injuries, then the going straight car has to prove that the left-turn did something wrong when it made the left turn into the going straight car. You don’t have to violate a traffic law to be a negligent driver, but in left-turn accidents, A.R.S. §28-772 helps the going straight car prove that the left-turn car was at fault. It says:
The driver of a vehicle within an intersection intending to turn to the left shall yield the right-of-way to a vehicle that is approaching from the opposite direction and that is within the intersection or so close to the intersection as to constitute an immediate hazard.
Did the left –turn car make a left turn? Yes. Was the going straight car approaching from the opposite direction? Yes. Was the going straight car close enough to constitute an immediate hazard? Yes. How do we know? Because the cars collided! So the going straight car has met its burden of proving that the left-turn car is responsible for the accident, because it violated the statute.
But what about the color of the light? Please note that A.R.S. §28-772 says nothing about the color of the light, so the left-turn car violated the law even if the going straight car ran the light. But running a light is also against the law (A.R.S. §28-645, so the going straight car could share as much as 50% of the fault for this accident—if it ran the red light. But the left-turn car now has to prove the light was red. While the going straight car has to prove that the left-turn car turned left (easy) in order to make a claim against the left-turn car, now the burden of proof shifts to the left-turn car on the issue of the color of the light (hard). So if the only witnesses to the color of the light are the opposing drivers, the left-turn car loses this issue due to a tie in the evidence. But, an independent witness that says the going straight car ran the red light would break the tie. Even then, the left-turn car still shares fault for the accident.
So the practical application of these laws is that a driver making a left turn should make sure no one is coming through that intersection—even late. But for drivers going straight, obviously, stop at the red light, if there is one. But, if drivers always did what they are supposed to do, I would be pursuing a career as a Flamenco guitarist.