Fault for Rear-End Car Accidents

When one vehicle rear-ends another, the trailing driver is usually at fault for the crash.

By , J.D. | Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney

Rear-end collisions are one of the most common types of car accidents. In 2020, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), around 30% of collisions involving moving vehicles were rear-end collisions.

Rear-end collisions are often low-speed, but they can cause significant injuries and other losses (called "damages"). If you've been involved in a rear-end collision, here's what you need to know:

  • The tailing driver is almost always at fault for a rear-end crash.
  • Common causes of rear-end accidents are distracted driving, weather, and tailgating.
  • The most common injuries resulting from rear-end crashes are "whiplash"-type injuries.
  • In some cases, both drivers involved in a rear-end accident share fault for the collision.

What Is a Rear-End Car Accident?

A rear-end accident is a type of accident that happens when one vehicle collides with the rear of another vehicle. The vehicle that gets hit is called the lead vehicle. The vehicle that does the hitting is called the tailing vehicle.

Common Causes of Rear-End Accidents

Rear-end accidents can happen for all kinds of reasons. The most common reasons include:

Common Injuries Caused by Rear-End Collisions

The driver and passengers in the lead car are particularly vulnerable to injuries in rear-end collisions because they have no opportunity to brace for impact. When drivers and passengers are hit forcefully from behind, they often suffer:

  • whiplash
  • seat-belt injuries
  • back injuries
  • head injuries, and
  • airbag injuries.

What Is Whiplash?

Whiplash is an injury caused by the neck forcibly moving back and forth. According to WebMD, symptoms of whiplash include:

  • neck pain and stiffness
  • headaches
  • pain in the shoulder or between the shoulder blades
  • low back pain
  • pain or numbness in the arms and hand
  • dizziness
  • difficulty concentrating, and
  • irritability, sleep disturbances, and fatigue.

Whiplash can be a disruptive and significant source of "pain and suffering" after a rear-end collision, but insurance adjusters tend to be skeptical of self-reports of these types of injuries. When they see a whiplash claim, they often picture an ambulance chaser-type lawyer representing a client wearing an unnecessary neck brace. To counteract this skepticism, get medical treatment and follow your doctor's instructions for treating your injuries.

Learn more about car accident neck injuries.

What to Do After a Rear-End Accident

If you've been rear-ended, you can take immediate steps to safeguard your right to compensation for your injuries and property damage. Most importantly, you can:

  • Get medical care.
  • Call the police and get a copy of the police report.
  • Gather potential evidence at the scene to prove fault, including witness names and contact information and photos of the accident scene, vehicles, and your injuries. Be sure to document the damage to the rear of your car and the front of the other driver's car—proof you were hit from behind and likely not at fault for the accident.
  • Call your car insurance company.
  • Consider talking to a car accident lawyer.

Proving Fault for Rear-End Collisions

When it comes to proving fault for a car accident, it doesn't get much more straightforward than rear-end crashes. Proving that a driver was at fault for a crash usually means proving that the driver was negligent (careless). A tailing driver who couldn't stop in time to avoid a collision was likely distracted or following the lead car too closely and therefore at fault for the collision.

Fault matters because, in most states, the at-fault driver is responsible for paying for accident-related losses, typically through liability insurance.

But lead drivers can be entirely or partially at fault for rear-end accidents if they:

  • reverse suddenly (often by accident)
  • drive with a brake light or taillight out
  • drive with a mechanical problem or flat tire without using hazard lights, or
  • "brake-check" (slam on the brakes to annoy or intimidate a trailing driver).

If you share fault for a rear-end crash, your own carelessness may reduce your compensation under comparative negligence rules. For example, if you're rear-ended while driving without brake lights at night, your insurer and the tailing driver's insurer may agree that you were 25% at fault for the accident. In most states, your settlement award would be reduced by your percentage of blame for the accident, so you would ultimately receive only 75% of your damages. So, if your damages total $10,000, you'd receive $7,500 ($10,000 - $2,500).

Learn more about car accident settlements.

How to Get Compensation After a Rear-End Car Accident

If you've been harmed in a rear-end collision, your ability to get compensation hinges on proving fault for the accident and car insurance coverage.

Filing a Car Accident Insurance Claim

Most rear-end car accident cases settle during the insurance claim process. As noted, proving fault (liability) isn't an issue in a lot of these cases, so settlement negotiations can focus exclusively on the value of the claim.

Learn more about how rear-end collision settlements work.

Rear-End Accidents In No-Fault States

If you live in one of the dozen or so no-fault states, the process of getting compensation after a rear-end accident is a little different. You'll have to turn to your own "personal injury protection" to cover your accident-related medical bills and lost income no matter who caused the accident.

The benefit of the no-fault insurance system is that you'll likely get paid a lot faster and without the hassle and uncertainty that is often a part of the fault-based system. The downside is that you can't recover compensation for pain and suffering in a no-fault claim.

You can step outside the no-fault system and make a fault-based claim if your injuries are serious, or your accident-related losses exceed a certain threshold set by state law.

Filing a Car Accident Lawsuit

If settlement negotiations stall or fail, you can file a car accident lawsuit. You have a limited amount of time to file your lawsuit, set by the statute of limitations in your state, so don't delay.

Filing a lawsuit is complicated. You have to be organized and willing to learn the rules of evidence and procedure or hire a lawyer to get the best possible outcome in your case.

Talk to a Lawyer

Rear-end collisions are common. If your injuries are minor and it's obvious who is to blame for the collision, you might be able to handle your own claim.

But if you're recovering from whiplash or your claim involves other complicating factors, having a legal professional on your side can make the difference between having your claim denied and getting fair compensation for your injuries. Learn more about hiring a car accident lawyer. You can also connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.

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