Fault in 'Chain Reaction' Car Accidents

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Chain reaction accidents occur when three or more vehicles hit one another in a series of rear-end accidents that are caused primarily by the force of the first collision.

Here’s an example of a typical chain reaction accident:

Driver D  -->  Driver C  -->  Driver B  -->  Driver A

Driver B rear-ends the car in front of him, which is being driven by Driver A. Because Driver C was following Driver B too closely and could not stop in time, Driver C also rear-ends Driver B. The same situation occurs behind Driver C, with Driver D being unable to stop in time to avoid rear-ending Driver C. Another wrinkle is that the force of the collision between Driver B and Driver A could send Driver A’s vehicle forward into the next vehicle in the line, and so on, causing another chain reaction.  

Because chain reaction accidents may involve many different drivers who were each acting carelessly (at least to some degree), bringing an insurance claim or personal injury lawsuit over these kinds of accidents may be challenging.  Let’s look at some of the different issues that may arise -- especially when it comes to establishing fault -- in car accident cases involving chain reaction accidents.

Establishing Who Was at Fault

If you file an insurance claim or lawsuit against another motorist after a chain reaction accident, you’ll need to prove liability under a legal theory called “negligence.”  Figuring out which driver was negligent is mostly a matter of determining which driver’s carelessness caused the accident -- or, if more than one driver was negligent, determining each driver’s share of liability. 

One rule of the road that comes into play in most chain reaction accidents is that drivers must leave a safe following distance between their vehicle and the vehicle in front of them, so that they can stop in time to avoid any road hazards or unexpected situations, such as the lead car slamming on its brakes. A driver who fails to maintain a safe following distance and then rear-ends the lead car will almost always be considered negligent. (Learn more: What is a Safe Following Distance?)

But what if your car is pushed into the vehicle in front of you, because you got hit from behind yourself?

Let’s revisit the example we discussed above:

Driver D  -->  Driver C  -->  Driver B  -->  Driver A

In this scenario, Driver A will need to establish the sequence of events that led to Driver B’s rear-ending Driver A.

Did Driver C rear-end Driver B, pushing Driver B into Driver A?  If this was the case, then Driver C would be at fault for driving carelessly and not leaving enough distance to stop in time.  If that’s the case, Driver C would likely be on the hook to both Driver A and Driver B for damages stemming from this accident.

What if Driver B rear-ended Driver A, and then Driver C, unable to stop in time, rear-ended Driver B?  In this case, Driver A would feel more than one impact, and both Driver C and Driver B would owe Driver A for damages stemming from the accident. Driver A could file a claim or lawsuit against both drivers, and let them sort out the situation between themselves.

Add Driver D into the mix, and the picture gets even more complicated. Driver B could rear-end Driver A, C could hit B, and D could hit C. Or, Driver D could cause a chain reaction crash him/herself, by hitting Driver C from behind, sending C into B, and B into A.

However a chain reaction plays out, there are a number of sources that can help you establish the order of impacts, and who was careless. These include:

  • eyewitness accounts (including your own, those of the passengers in each car, passers-by, and the drivers of the cars behind you)
  • police reports of the accident, including findings as to whether any driver committed a traffic violation
  • vehicle damage, and
  • evidence at the scene of the accident, including skid marks and vehicle debris.

For help navigating each step of an insurance claim or lawsuit after a car accident, get How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim by Joseph L. Matthews (Nolo). You may also want to consult an experienced personal injury attorney to make sure your legal rights are protected.

Updated by: , J.D.

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