Rear-End Collision: When the Lead Driver May Be at Fault

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If you’ve been in a car accident where you ended up rear-ending another motorist, it can be difficult to show that you weren’t at fault for the crash, but it’s not necessarily impossible. This article explores a few scenarios in which the leading (as opposed to the tailing) driver may be found liable (at least in part) for causing a rear-end collision. Whether you were at fault or not, make sure you know what to do at the accident scene if you get into another car accident.

The "Assured Clear Distance Ahead" Rule

Most of us have heard that the tailing driver is to blame for any rear-end accident. In large part, this is due to the assured clear distance ahead (ACDA) rule, which requires that a driver generally maintain an assured clear distance between his vehicle and anything in front of him.

How does the ACDA rule apply?  Let’s say you’re following another motorist on the highway, and you’re both driving at the speed limit, when the driver in front of you stops suddenly. You stand on your brakes, but you still hit the car in front of you. That’s a violation of the ACDA rule.  Or, say you’re driving around a corner, there’s a disabled vehicle in the road, and you can’t stop in time before you hit the car. That’s another violation of the ACDA rule. That rule requires you to keep enough distance between your car and other vehicles so that you can avoid hitting them if they stop, or to be travelling at a speed where you can stop if you come upon a stationary object in the road.

Learn More: What is a Safe Following Distance?

When the ACDA Rule May Be Bent

But what if you’re driving along and somebody cuts out in front of you from a side street, without leaving enough room for you to stop?  Or what if somebody merges into your lane immediately in front of you without maintaining sufficient speed?  These are two situations that can easily cause a rear-end collision in which you, the rear car, will generally not be held liable -- assuming you weren’t speeding or violating some other traffic law.

The sudden and unexpected entrance of another vehicle, pedestrian, or object into your rightful lane of travel provides some relief from the ACDA rule and accounts for the most common situation in which the driver of the rear vehicle is not liable in a rear-end collision.

You may have also heard about the “swoop and squat” con.  Some insurance companies have been talking this up recently, though courts seem to be slow to embrace it.  In a “swoop and squat,” two other drivers operate their cars to box you in and cause a collision.  The first driver swerves in front of you at a very close distance and hits his brakes as hard as he can, while the second driver is pulled up alongside you so that you will not be able to swerve into another lane to avoid the collision.  Since the collision has been orchestrated, it probably will not occur at such a speed to cause serious injury, and the other driver will probably emerge seemingly unhurt -- which is why the lawsuit alleging catastrophic injuries and sky-high medical bills will be such a surprise.

Many people feel that they have been the victim of a “swoop and squat,” and courts can be leery of these claims.  They can be difficult to prove, as you need to be able to show a connection between the driver that you struck and the one who boxed you in.  After that, it could still be a question of comparative fault when the ACDA rule is factored in. In other words, even if the person in front of you intended to cause the accident by slowing down, did you still have the time between the driver’s entry in your lane and the accident to slow down enough to maintain that clear distance?

Accidental Acceleration in Reverse

A third way in which the forward driver may be at fault for a rear-end accident is a surprisingly common incident; while stopped at a light or stop sign, the forward driver either accidently puts his car in reverse or neglects to take it out of reverse after having to back out of the intersection. Then, unaware that the car is in reverse, the driver accelerates and ends up hitting the driver behind him.  While the fault is in actuality with the forward driver, this is another situation in which it is very easy for the forward driver to lie about what happened and point the finger at the tailing driver.

Legal Advice

Rear-end collisions are some of the most common car accidents, but liability issues can become complex, and the back-and-forth negotiations among drivers, insurers, and lawyers can be challenging. 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.

by: Michelle Santos

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