It isn't always easy to sort out who is at fault for a car accident. But in a few common scenarios, fault can usually be determined by an examination of the circumstances of the crash. That includes a rear-end collision, where the tailing driver will almost certainly be deemed at fault. But there are rare situations in which liability for a rear-end crash might not be so clear-cut. Read on to learn more.
A basic rule of the road requires you to be able to stop your vehicle safely if another vehicle stops ahead of you (this is sometimes called the "assured clear distance" rule). So, as a tailing driver, if you cannot stop in time and wind up rear-ending the vehicle in front of you, you are not driving as safely as you need to be under the circumstances, and you'll be liable for the crash. Learn more: What is a safe following distance?
This rule is so well-established that car insurance companies rarely even bother to argue about liability for a rear-end accident. Instead, settlement negotiations tend to focus on the nature and extent of injuries and vehicle damage, etc.
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, might 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 may provide some relief from the "assured clear distance" rule when it comes to liability for a rear-end collision.
You may have also heard about the "swoop and squat" con. That's when 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 subsequent car accident lawsuit alleging catastrophic injuries and sky-high medical bills will be such a surprise.
It should be noted that insurance companies and courts can be leery of "swoop and squat" claims. It can be difficult to prove that you've been victimized by this kind of staged accident, 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. 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 a safe, clear distance? (More on shared fault later.)
Another way in which the lead driver may be at fault for a rear-end accident is a not uncommon scenario: While stopped at a light or stop sign, the forward driver either accidentally puts his car in reverse or neglects to take it out of reverse after having to inch backward out of the intersection. Then, unaware that the car is still in reverse, the driver accelerates and ends up hitting the vehicle behind him. While fault lies with the lead driver, it is very easy for the lead driver to lie about what happened and point the finger at the tailing driver. And since damage to the vehicles involved usually goes a long way toward proving how the accident occurred, the tailing (and innocent) driver in this scenario may face an uphill battle.
Even if you have been rear-ended, in a few circumstances your own carelessness may reduce your compensation under the rule of comparative negligence. A common example is when one or both of your brake or tail lights were out, especially if the accident happened at night. So, if your insurance carrier and the other driver's insurer agree that you were 25% at fault for causing the rear-end accident (even though you were hit from behind), under comparative negligence rules (in place in most states), any settlement award you receive would only compensate you for 75% of your damages. Learn more about car accident settlements.