Fault in Common Car Accident Scenarios

Look at a few common car accident scenarios and explore how fault is likely to be apportioned in each.

Proving fault in a car accident is not always easy or intuitive. Immediately after the accident, you may suspect that you were at fault or that another party was to blame, yet your immediate impressions may not match the facts that become clear in the days or weeks following the accident.

In this article, we look at a few common car accident scenarios and explore how fault is likely to be apportioned in each. Remember that car accident fault determinations depend on many factors, so if you've got questions about your case -- and especially if the other driver is pointing fingers at you and damages are significant -- it is probably a good idea to get them answered by an experienced attorney.

Scenario #1: Rear-End Accidents

In a rear-end accident, two vehicles are typically traveling or pointed in the same direction when the vehicle behind hits the back of the vehicle in front. Rear-end accidents may happen at traffic lights or stop signs or while both vehicles are moving in traffic.

In most rear-end accidents, the driver of the tailing vehicle is the one at fault due to what's known as the "safe following distance" rule. This rule requires drivers to leave enough space between their own vehicle and the one ahead to allow for a safe stop, even in an emergency or when roads are slippery. Rear-end collisions are typically seen as evidence that the following driver failed to obey the "safe following distance" rule -- the logic being that if the rule had been observed in the first place, no collision would have happened.

However, in some rear-end accidents, the lead driver may be at fault. This situation may occur when the lead driver cuts in front of the following driver too closely for the following driver to prevent a collision, or when the lead driver accidentally puts his or her vehicle in reverse and backs into the following driver.

Scenario #2: Side-Impact Accidents

In a side-impact accident, one vehicle hits the side of another, either directly (the so-called "T-bone" crash), or at an angle (the "sideswipe" crash). These accidents are most common at intersections, when one or both drivers fail to yield the right-of-way, or neglect to obey traffic signs or signals.

Who is at fault in a side-impact crash depends largely on how the accident played out. A driver who clearly ran a red light or a stop sign and crashed into another vehicle is also clearly at fault in most cases. However, a driver who cuts in front of another during a turn may claim that it was the other vehicle that failed to yield. Side-impact accidents at intersections may also be the result of vehicle defects, such as failing brakes, that prevent the driver from stopping even when he or she attempted to do so. In this last category of cases, the vehicle manufacturer or the last repair team to work on the brakes may be at fault. (Learn more about accidents caused by vehicle defects.)

Scenario #3: Chain-Reaction Car Accidents

Sorting out liability in a chain-reaction car accident, where more than one collision occurs among multiple vehicles, can be challenging.

One place to start is to consider which collisions were rear-end collisions and how they occurred. For instance, suppose that Driver B hits Driver A from the rear because Driver B was following too closely to stop. Driver C then hits Driver B, because Driver C was following too closely to stop. In this situation, Drivers B and C likely share some or all of the liability between them, since both violated the "safe following distance" rule in a way that caused a crash. Driver A may or may not share some liability as well, depending on Driver A's behavior immediately before the crash.

Witness accounts, police reports, and examinations of vehicle damage and evidence left at the scene can all be instrumental in determining who was careless in a chain-reaction crash. (Learn more about car accidents in which several parties are responsible.)

Scenario #4: No-Contact Car Accidents

If two vehicles are involved in an accident but they never "trade paint," can one driver still be at fault for injuries or damage suffered by the other? The answer is yes. A "no-contact car accident" is one in which the behavior of one driver (or another party, like a bicyclist or even a deer) causes another to have an accident. One example is a situation in which a driver swerves into your lane, forcing you to swerve off the road, damaging your vehicle.

A driver may be at fault in a no-contact car accident if his or her behavior causes an accident, even if the vehicles do not collide. The difficulty in proving fault in a no-contact car accident is establishing that the other driver acted in a way that caused the crash -- a difficulty that is compounded when no eyewitnesses or vehicle information is available. Some auto insurance policies cover no-contact accidents under the driver's uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage. Reading your own policy can help you determine if you have such coverage for no-contact accidents.

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