How are damages paid when multiple drivers are at fault for a car accident?

Question

How are damages paid when multiple drivers are at fault for a car accident?

Answer

When more than one driver is at fault for a car accident, the effect it will have on the payment of damages depends on the law in the state where the accident occurred, and the stage at which the case is being resolved (i.e. out-of-court settlement versus trial).

For every kind of personal injury or tort case --which includes injury and vehicle damage claims arising after car accidents -- states follow one of two legal rules when the person who is making the claim turns out to share some level of blame for causing or contributing to the underlying accident. One rule is called “comparative negligence,” and the other is known as “contributory negligence.”

In comparative negligence states, an injured person’s recoverable damages are reduced according to the percentage of fault he or she bears for the underlying accident. So, let’s say Driver A turns left right in front of Driver B, while Driver B was driving 45 mph in a 40 mph zone. Fault might be apportioned at 85 percent for Driver A, and 15 percent for Driver B. If Driver B sues Driver A for $10,000 in damages, any award would be reduced to $8,500 (the original $10,000 less 15 percent which accounts for Driver B’s share of fault).

In the few contributory negligence states (Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington D.C.), the result is much more harsh. An injured person who bears any level of blame for the accident can’t collect any damages at all from any other at-fault party. So, in the above scenario, Driver B couldn’t get any compensation from Driver A.

(Look up the Car Accident Laws in Your State.)

Those are the rules, and every state follows some variation on one or the other. And if your car accident case makes it all the way to trial, the judge and the jury are required to apply these rules in your case. So, the jury will determine whether you share some level of fault for causing the accident, and if so, they will make a precise apportionment, and then adjust any resulting damages award accordingly.

But if your car accident case is not at trial, and most aren’t -- maybe a lawsuit hasn’t even been filed yet and you’re trying to resolve the case via settlement -- that doesn’t mean you can disregard your state’s shared fault rules. You can bet that the insurance adjusters won’t ignore them.

Adjusters keep an eye toward what might happen if the case does make it to trial, so if you’re partially at fault for the car accident, any settlement offer will reflect that (you’ll be offered less than you would have been if the other driver bore all the blame. And if you happen to live in one of the contributory negligence states, you can expect the adjuster for the other driver to take a pretty hard line on any injury claim you make (remember, in those states, the court would bar an injured person from receiving any damages whatsoever if he or she bears any amount of fault for the underlying accident).

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