How Is Fault Determined in a Car Accident?

How courts find fault in an accident

By Kimberly Lekman, Esq. | Last updated on January 26, 2023

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If you have experienced a car accident, you might be considering taking legal action against the other drivers involved in the wreck. Through an auto insurance claim or even a lawsuit, you may be able to recover payments (“damages”) for the costs of your medical expenses, lost earnings, vehicle damages, and more. However, an essential part of your car accident claim will be determining which party was at fault for the crash. Car crashes can occur for a wide variety of reasons and can have multiple complicating factors. Weather conditions, medical emergencies, driver error, and more are all issues that can combine to cause a motor vehicle accident. Because auto accidents are as unique as the drivers involved, the determination of fault depends on the details of the accident. It can be more challenging to assign fault when multiple parties might have made driving mistakes. However, determining fault is more straightforward in cases where a driver clearly broke traffic laws, directly causing the collision. The following summary will help you understand how lawyers and insurance adjusters assign fault for car collisions. However, state laws vary and are subject to change. So, it would be wise to consult a skilled car accident lawyer to help you with your car accident claim.

Traffic Law Violations

If one of the drivers in your accident broke traffic laws, fault might be easy to establish. When a driver violates a traffic law and an accident follows, this usually creates a presumption that they were at fault. For example, suppose you were in a car accident with a driver who ran a red light and struck your car in the intersection. In that case, it should be fairly easy to show that the other driver was at fault for the accident. There are many other state traffic laws on the books that drivers must follow for the safety of others on the road. When drivers break these laws, accidents result. Some other common traffic violations include:
  • Speeding
  • Failure to yield
  • Failure to stop at a stop sign
  • Driving the wrong way
  • Drunk driving
  • Crossing a median and driving into oncoming traffic
If you think that the other driver in your accident violated traffic laws, it would be wise to consult an attorney. State laws vary, and the interpretation of these laws evolves with time. An experienced car accident attorney can investigate the facts of your case and determine whether the other driver violated traffic laws to cause your accident.

Fault Described in a Police Report

After a car accident, the first thing you should do is make sure you and everyone involved is safe. Next, call 911 if anyone is severely injured. If you were fortunate enough to escape with only minor injuries, you could call the local police station directly. You should not leave the scene of the accident without exchanging contact details and insurance information with the other drivers. Leaving the accident scene is against the law in many states. Further, there may be laws in your state requiring you to inform the police of any car accident that causes property damage above a certain threshold or bodily injury. When the police arrive at the scene, they will ensure everyone is safe, redirect traffic, and issue citations as needed. They will also create a police report. This report will contain details about the car accident, such as the positioning of the automobiles, the weather conditions, and eyewitness accounts. Further, the police officer may include their own opinion about who the at-fault driver was. Car insurance companies will probably require a copy of the police report before issuing any payments. If the police did not arrive at the scene of your accident, you should go to a local police station to inform them of the accident. In some jurisdictions, you can file a report about your collision online. It would be wise to contact the local police department to learn how to inform them of your accident and request a copy of your official accident report.

Rear-End Collisions

When a motor vehicle hits another from behind, it’s often due to following too closely or distracted driving. Rear-end collisions can cause severe consequences because the front driver often does not see the impact coming until it’s too late to avoid it. Generally speaking, a driver who strikes another vehicle from behind is usually at fault. However, there may be exceptions to this rule of thumb. Consider, for example, a chain-reaction car wreck. If one car rear-ends another, it may push it into the next automobile. In this case, the fault will most likely lie with the driver who caused the first collision in the chain reaction. However, the other drivers could also be at fault if they followed too closely. As mentioned above, your attorney will need to investigate the facts of your specific case to determine where the fault lies accurately. Sometimes several parties might share the fault.

Shared Fault

Determining fault in a car accident can become more complicated when several parties contribute to the accident. If you were partially responsible for your auto accident, this might reduce the value of your case. However, state laws vary on the distribution of fault in car accidents. So, it’s wise to contact an experienced car accident attorney familiar with your state’s laws.

Contributory Fault

When several parties are responsible for an accident, legal concepts known as “comparative fault” or “contributory fault” kick in. Take, for example, a highway accident where a car driver fell asleep at the wheel and swerved into another lane. A bus traveling in the other lane is going ten miles above the speed limit and collides with the car. In this case, both the bus driver and the car driver violated traffic laws. So, the fault lies with both drivers. However, the car driver is probably more at fault because they fell asleep at the wheel. In some states, if a party contributed to the accident at all, they cannot recover for their damages from the other party. This is known as “contributory fault” or “contributory negligence.” However, contributory fault is becoming less and less popular, and most states have phased it out. Instead, most states use a “comparative fault” model.

Comparative Fault

With comparative fault (sometimes called “comparative negligence”), each party will receive a percentage of fault. Their financial award will be reduced according to their share of fault. In the above example, the car driver might be 70% at fault and the bus driver 30% at fault. In a pure comparative fault state, the bus driver can recover damages even though they were partially at fault. However, their financial award will be reduced by 30%. The car driver can also make a claim for their damages even though they were 70% at fault. However, their payment will be reduced by 70%. To further complicate matters, some states have implemented a “modified comparative fault” law. Under this standard, a driver who is more than 50% at fault cannot make a claim for their damages from the other party. In our example, this would mean that the car driver could not make a claim against the bus driver in a modified comparative fault state.

Why Hire an Attorney?

Determining fault in a motor vehicle accident can be a complex matter. An experienced car accident attorney and their law firm staff can gather and analyze evidence from your accident like police reports, medical records, eyewitness reports, medical bills, and more. Next, they can apply this evidence to your state’s laws and build a case. Further, your attorney can provide you with legal advice on handling calls from insurance adjusters and other attorneys. There might be a time limit (a statute of limitation) on your ability to file a personal injury claim under your state law. Insurance policies often require car accident victims to file claims promptly after the accident too. So, it’s a good idea to contact an attorney as soon as possible about your claim. Because most personal injury lawyers offer a free consultation, you have nothing to lose by contacting an attorney about your car accident today. At your first meeting, you can ask the attorney to evaluate your case. This case review should provide you with an idea of the value of your case and the potential timeline of settling it. Further, you can use this meeting to develop a rapport with the attorney and ask them about their car accident case experience. It would be best if you choose an attorney who has ample experience in motor vehicle accidents and who you trust to guide you through your claim.

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