Accident Liability: Who Is At Fault?

Posted on by Defensive Driving | in Defensive Driving Tips

Now that I’ve discussed what to do if you’re in an accident, it makes sense to look at what happens after an accident. Car accidents can be very costly, both in terms of personal injuries and damage to your car. Understanding how insurance companies determine fault and what you are legally liable for can help you to avoid paying unnecessary damages.

At first glance, the laws and regulations surrounding liability for motor vehicle accidents can seem daunting, particularly because legal jargon is pretty opaque. However, the basic principles are fairly simple and logical.

First off, insurance companies need to determine who is at fault in an accident, as this will impact who is awarded damages and how much payment each party receives. Under common law, there are different kinds of fault. The two most commonly applied to car accidents are negligence, which is careless or inadvertently harmful behavior, and recklessness, which involves a deliberate disregard for the safety of other people. Failing to observe the proper procedure at a four way stop would be a case of negligence, while drunk driving would constitute reckless behavior.

One more useful piece of vocabulary before we move on: If you cause an accident, you have committed a tort, which is a private wrong committed outside of a contract. Someone who commits a tort is called a tortfeasor. You may notice this language in your insurance policy, but don’t let it intimidate you.

After you’ve submitted your insurance claim, your insurance company will negotiate with the insurance company of the other party or parties on your behalf. Together, the companies will decide what is fair compensation for each party.

Insurance claims adjusters look at four factors in order to determine fault: duties, breach, causation, and damages. All four of these elements need to be in place in order for the company to assert that a party is at fault.

First, every driver has certain duties while on the road. These duties are usually described as “look out”, avoidance, and following the rules of the road. “Look out” means that you need to be aware of your surroundings at all times. It’s your duty to see what is happening on the road and in your environment. For this reason, never tell an adjuster or police officer that you “didn’t see the other car” or “it came out of nowhere.” This is enough to establish that you are at least partially at fault, as you didn’t uphold your duty to be aware of your surroundings.

Avoidance means that you have to do your best to avoid the accident. This doesn’t mean that you have to actually avoid the accident, it just means that you have to demonstrate that you tried. For example, if a car runs a red light as you are entering an intersection and you don’t brake or swerve to avoid hitting that car, then you are partially at fault, even though the other driver broke the law. The third duty, following the rules of the road, is fairly straightforward.

In order to determine fault, insurance companies need to show that you have failed in one of these duties. This is known as a breach. They also need to show causation, i.e. that there is a connection between the duty breached and the damages caused. All damages, either property damages or injuries, must be related to the duty breach that you caused. For example, say that your car is parked with the engine running, but you are not wearing your seatbelt; another car hits you, and you are injured in the collision. On the one hand, you were breaking the law by not wearing your seatbelt. However, this breach did not cause the accident, i.e. wearing your seatbelt would in no way have ameliorated this accident. Therefore, you are not liable for damages to either car. However, if failure to wear the seatbelt exacerbated your injuries, your claims for these damages due to personal injury could be reduced.

In order to make these determinations, insurance companies rely on the police report and other accounts of the accident. In making your claim, it may be helpful to review the police report yourself and to check up on local law codes regarding the driving situation you were in. If you can cite a specific code that the other driver broke, you will be going a long way towards helping your insurance company prove the other side was at fault.

There are two kinds of accidents where fault is pretty straightforward. The first is a rear end accident. In this instance, the driver behind you is always at fault, as he or she has a clear duty to maintain a safe following distance. Even if you stop suddenly, the other driver should have enough space to stop safely as well. If that driver has been pushed into you by another car, he could claim damages from the car that hit him. However, he is still liable for the damages to your car. If you’ve done something wrong, such as driving without working brake lights, your damages award could be reduced.

The other case is a left turn accident. In this scenario, the driver turning left is at fault, as the driver going straight has the right of way. There are a few exceptions, of course, such as if the other driver is speeding or runs a red light.

In most other types of accidents, there will most likely be some degree of fault on both sides. In these cases, the way that fault is handled varies from state to state. Four different kinds of laws are in place.

In states with contributory negligence laws, if either party is at all at fault, then they cannot claim damages. Even if you are only slightly at fault for an accident, you will not be able to claim any damages. Only a few states follow this law: Alabama, District of Columbia, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia.

Another, more common kind of law, is pure comparative fault. Under this law, your damage award is reduced by your percentage of fault. If you are 10% at fault, then your award will be reduced by 10%. New York, Rhode Island, Kentucky, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, California, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, South Dakota, Washington and Alaska use this law.
Other states use proportional comparative fault. This means that if you are above a certain percentage at fault, you will not be able to claim damages. Some states set the bar at 51%, so if you are found to be 51% or more at fault, you cannot claim damages. These states include Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Other states set the bar at 50%, so that if you are 50% or more responsible, you can’t claim for damages. States using this law are: Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah and West Virginia.

Once fault is determined, the next step is to assess the total cost of all damages. For this reason, it is important that you keep records of any expenses related to the accident. This is also why it is essential that you receive a medical check-up shortly after the accident, even if you do not think you are seriously injured. If a more serious problem does manifest itself in the weeks after the accident, it can be become increasingly difficult to prove that this problem was directly caused by the accident. Damages in the form of lost wages and loss of future earnings are also taken into account, as are general damages, such as pain and suffering or reduced quality of life, although these can be more complicated. In the case of a particularly severe or complicated accident, it could be a good idea to consult a lawyer, as these cases can become very complex.

Finally, it always helps to be familiar with your insurance policy and the liability limits. Note that there will be two separate limits for injury and property damages. Purchasing personal injury protection or no fault coverage will ensure that you are covered by your insurance company no matter who is at fault. Uninsured or underinsured coverage makes sure that you are covered even if the other party does not have insurance or does not have enough to cover the full cost of damages to you and your vehicle.

To find out more on this topic, or to read up and watch videos on various other car-related topics, visit Defensive Driving’s Safe Driver Resources page.


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