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Who’s at fault in a car accident?

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A guide to who’s liable for damages in common collision scenarios.

Everybody knows what to do when there’s a car accident: Get out of the vehicle, check for injuries, exchange insurance information with the other driver and wait for the police to arrive. Then days later your insurance claims kick in, and someone (or multiple people) are held responsible for the collision. The question is, who?

We created a guide to understand who’s at fault in common collision scenarios. At fault means someone is responsible for an accident and may be held liable for damages. Let’s investigate the most popular types of car accidents to occur.

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When a car hits a pedestrian

You might think pedestrians always have the right of way, but that’s not actually true. When determining who’s at fault in a vehicle-pedestrian accident, look at who broke the law or acted carelessly. This is known as the law of negligence.

Here are a few examples of negligence:

  • For a driver: running a red light, rolling past a stop sign, driving while talking on a cell phone, etc.
  • For a pedestrian: jaywalking, loitering in the crosswalk after the light turns red, etc.

It’s easy to blame the driver in a pedestrian-driver accident. Oftentimes, they’re certainly at fault. But pedestrians don’t have automatic immunity. If they’re walking in the street when they shouldn’t be, they may be at fault.

And then the driver and the pedestrian can both be negligent, at which point contributory or comparative negligence laws will apply.

Contributory vs. comparative negligence

When assigning blame for an accident, states use one of two legal concepts: contributory negligence and comparative negligence.

With contributory negligence, you’re not allowed to make a claim if you’re at fault for an accident. If a driver and pedestrian share fault in an accident, for example, they must pay for their own damages or injuries. Only four states use contributory negligence: Maryland, Virginia, Alabama and DC.

There are two variations of comparative negligence:

  • Pure comparative negligence. An injured party can make a claim against another party, but compensation is reduced to the extent that the injured person is at fault.
  • Modified comparative negligence. The injured party can only receive compensation if they’re less than 50 percent at fault.

Before making a claim, check which system your state uses.


When a driver rear-ends another driver’s car

As with a vehicle-pedestrian accident, it may seem obvious who’s at fault in a rear-end collision. But the driver who rear-ends another isn’t always the one liable. To determine fault in a rear-end collision, return to the concept of negligence.

If you rear-end another vehicle, you’ll likely bear most of the responsibility for the collision. The law considers you negligent because you failed to keep sufficient space between your vehicle and the leading vehicle — the car in front of you.

The driver of the leading vehicle may also bear some responsibility for the collision. That driver could be negligent as well, like if they reverse without warning or fail to maintain their brake lights.

In the awarding of damages — the compensation a party receives — your state will follow the concepts of contributory or comparative negligence.


In parking lot accidents

The parking lot is one of the most common places for accidents to happen. Drivers are vulnerable when backing out, pedestrians appear out of nowhere and countless cars squeeze into compact spaces. To determine who’s at fault in a parking lot, keep two concepts in mind: who’s moving and who has the right of way.

Here’s the skinny on who’s at fault in common parking lot accidents.

  • A driver backs out of a space and collides with an oncoming car

    Both cars are moving, so both drivers may be deemed partially at fault.
    However, in most cases the driver in the through-lane has the right of way. This means the driver backing out is more likely to hold responsibility for the accident. In some cases, the driver backing out has backed out enough that they have control of the lane. If this is the case, that driver would have the right of way.

  • Two drivers pull out of spaces and back into each other

    Both cars are moving and neither driver has the right of way. Because of this, both drivers will likely be deemed at fault in the accident.

  • Two cars collide while going for the same space

    Both cars are moving. However, the driver turning rightward into the parking space has the right of way. Because the other driver is turning into oncoming traffic, they must yield.

There are many variables that might ultimately decide who’s at fault, but the driver turning left will probably be held mostly responsible for the collision.


In a three-way collision

When gauging fault in a three-way collision, think about the extent to which a driver contributed to the accident. As you might expect, the leading vehicle usually bears less responsibility than the end vehicle. But that might not always be the case.

  • Leading car.

    Oftentimes, the front car won’t be at fault in a three-way pileup. However, the driver could be found partially negligent for reckless driving.
    For example, they may have slammed on their brakes, making it difficult for the driver behind them to brake in time.

  • Middle car.

    To determine fault for the middle car, consider the accident through the lens of a rear-end collision. The driver is still expected to keep sufficient space between them and the leading car. That said, they may be held partially responsible for damage to the leading car. Often, the driver of the leading car can make a claim against the drivers of the middle and end cars.

    The driver of the middle car may still be held responsible for the pileup if they’re found negligent — for example, by slamming on their brakes.

  • End car.

    Typically, the driver of the end car will be held mostly responsible for the collision. The driver of the middle car will probably make a claim against the end car as well.

    The driver of the end car may be able to pursue a claim against the other drivers in certain cases of negligence.


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