How Auto Accident Liability is Determined

Auto accident liability is chiefly determined by the amount of fault assigned to each driver involved in an accident.

Auto accident liability is determined by analyzing the circumstances of how a particular car accident played out, and apportioning fault to the drivers involved. But apportioning fault can be a difficult process, depending on the facts of a particular case, and the practical effect of determining fault is completely dependent on the auto accident laws in place in your state. Generally, there are three types of car accident liability laws: fault, no-fault and hybrid jurisdictions. In this article, we'll take a closer look at all three varieties.

Determining Auto Accident Liability in Fault States

The vast majority of states rely upon a determination of fault when apportioning liability in an auto accident case. In some cases, fault is readily apparent. Acts of negligence -- such as causing an accident by running a stop sign, speeding, or rear-ending another vehicle -- require little or no analysis when determining fault. The person driving negligently is at-fault, and is liable for any injuries caused by their negligence.

In other instances, apportioning fault and determining auto accident liability can be more difficult. Failure to yield cases are an excellent example of a type of case in which apportioning fault can be difficult. Road conditions, traffic conditions and the actions of drivers not involved in the accident can all play a factor. Often, whether or not a driver was ticketed for an accident can tip the liability scales.

In many states, principles of comparative or contributory negligence come into play. Comparative negligence is a system where a percentage of fault is assessed to each party who was directly involved in the accident (whether or not that party is involved in the lawsuit).

Some comparative negligence states have laws preventing you from recovering if you are determined to be 50% or more at fault. Still other states apportion damages based upon percentage of fault, so if you are 30% at fault for the injuries you’ve sustained and another driver is 70% at fault, you may only recover 70% of your total damages.

Contributory negligence, on the other hand, bars recovery if a party contributed to the accident in any way, regardless of percentage. Both contributory and comparative negligence can be extremely objective. There is no tried and true formula for determining fault under these principles. Juries often have a very different opinion regarding percentage of fault than parties in a case, and their determinations of fault can be very subjective.

Determining Auto Accident Liability in No-Fault States

A minority of states rely upon no-fault principles when determining auto accident liability. If you live in one of the dozen or so no-fault states, you are required by law to carry a minimum amount of auto insurance to cover yourself and, in limited cases, others. Instead of automatically determining fault and assigning liability -- and filing a lawsuit -- victims in no-fault states recover from their own insurance company.

All no-fault states have what is called a “threshold” that must be met before a lawsuit can be filed. Your injuries must be of a certain statutorily-mandated severity (in terms of the seriousness of the injuries or the corresponding cost of medical bills) before a lawsuit can be filed against a negligent driver. The purpose of such systems is to reduce the amount of lawsuits filed in auto accident cases. Threshold injuries are a hotly-debated topic in the legal world, and can be almost capriciously objective.

In no-fault states, a determination of liability is a moot point unless an injury meets the statutory threshold. Once the threshold is met, then principles of comparative and contributory negligence (as discussed above) come into play, and liability is apportioned accordingly.

Learn more about no-fault states with monetary thresholds and no-fault states with 'serious injury' thresholds.

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