What is Admitted Liability?
‘Admitted liability’ cases are when the defendant acknowledges their fault for causing the accident. However, accepting fault is usually a strategic move to focus the trial on other elements and as a way to lower the verdict. This process is prevalent in various cases, mainly in personal injury cases. Despite the defendant accepting their role in the incident, it does not automatically mean the injured party will receive a substantial settlement or verdict.
In ‘admitted liability’ cases, the burden of proof changes. By accepting liability, the accused party essentially satisfies the plaintiff’s requirement to prove negligence or fault. The trial’s focus then moves to the extent of damages (what is the harm caused by the “accident”?).
Sample Jury Instruction
The standard Oklahoma jury instruction on a car accident case looks similar to something like:
The parties to this case are [name of Plaintiff], the Plaintiff, and [name of Defendant], the Defendant.
Both parties agree that a collision occurred between automobiles driven by the parties on [date] at [location].
Plaintiff claims that he sustained injuries which were directly caused by the negligence of Defendant in one or more of the following respects:
B. In driving to the left of the center of the road. A. In failing to keep a careful lookout;
Defendant denies that [he/she] was guilty of negligence in doing any of the things claimed by Plaintiff] and that Plaintiff was injured, and as an additional defense, claims that Plaintiff was contributorily negligent, which contributed to bringing about the occurrence, in one or more of the following respects:
B. In driving under the influence of intoxicating liquors. A. In failing to keep a careful lookout;
Plaintiff denies the claims of Defendant.
These are the issues you are to determine.
If you’ve done any research, you know that any negligence case will require the plaintiff to prove these three elements of the Defendant:
- Had a duty to Plaintiff
- Breached that Duty and
Taking the most common personal injury case, a car accident:
- The defendant had a duty to watch where he was going (to not run into the plaintiff).
- The defendant failed to do that and rear-ended the plaintiff at a red light, causing a collision.
- The collision caused the plaintiff’s injuries, medical bills, lost income, and pain & suffering.
By admitting fault, the Defense is only leaving element number 3.
Do I need a lawyer if the insurance company accepts liability?
"Admitted Liability" cases are no different than contested liability cases for negotiation purposes. If you have serious injuries or significant medical bills, there's a good chance the insurance company will not offer a fair settlement. At the very least, you should meet with an attorney to review your options.
Rationale for Admitting Fault
Give a false impression the adjuster is being fair.
I’ve heard from many clients that the adjuster on their case initially stated, “this is an admitted liability claim; we’ll get you taken care of.” Only to later play hardball with ridiculous settlement offers when it came time to settle the claim.
An adjuster “admitting liability” doesn’t mean anything at trial. The adjuster is not a party to the lawsuit. The named defendant is the driver that hit you. This “admission” is not admissible in court because the defendant did not make the statement.
Discount the Verdict with a “Low Anchor”
The main priority of every insurance company is to pay out as little as possible. Admitting fault is one of the most common tactics to lessen a verdict. The crazy thing is that insurance companies will deny liability all the way up to the eve of trial and then admit liability at the last minute. They then file motions to prevent the jury from hearing of this change. A “We’re not sorry until the eve of trial” approach. “Sorry, you had to spend all that money on depositions with witnesses. Those are now not needed at trial.”
Another way to attempt to get a discount on the verdict: Defense attorneys are taught using a “low anchor” can help lessen the award. One key strategy is to “choose a low number, but one that is not so low as to impact credibility.” The rationale is that the plaintiff will ask for a verdict, and then the defense comes in with an arbitrarily low number, hoping the jury will meet somewhere in the middle. They know their “offer” at trial is artificially low, but that’s not the point. It’s to lessen the total verdict.
Attempt at Credibility
Defense attorneys usually say something like, “We admit to causing the wreck – but we don’t admit to all of the damages that the plaintiff claims. To be fair (remember, it’s a defense tactic), we think a reasonable amount to compensate the plaintiff is $5k, so ignore the other $20k in medical bills. Those bills are high.” When did patients start having control of what a hospital emergency room charges for an x-ray?
Potentially Save on Needless Litigation
This only occurs on the rare example when the insurance company admits liability from the get-go.
Hide the Truth from the Jury
The most insidious rationale for admitting fault at the last minute is an attempt to avoid having witnesses testify to how the wreck occurred. The insurance company is trying to hide their driver’s bad behavior that caused the wreck. “We’re admitting to causing the wreck, and there’s no reason for the jury to hear that we denied liability for the previous two years and changed it to admitted liability last week…or that our driver was texting right before the accident.” The argument is that the jury doesn’t need to hear how the wreck happened if the defendant admits to causing it.