Car accidents are a common occurrence on our roads. While not all collisions on the road lead to injuries or fatalities, many do. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), more than six million non-fatal car accidents happened in one recent year. That year, over 39,500 people died in auto accidents across the country.
While common, car accidents can be difficult to navigate, especially when figuring out who is at fault. Determining fault in a car accident can be a complex process that often requires the assistance of a skilled lawyer, especially when trying to focus on your treatment if you suffered injuries.
A knowledgeable car accident attorney can gather the necessary evidence, interview witnesses, and handle all the documentation relevant to your claim.
When available, the following evidence can indicate fault for the crash:
- Damage to the vehicles. Examining the damage done to all vehicles involved can say a lot about how an accident occurred and whose negligence contributed to or caused the collision. For example, if a vehicle’s rear sustained damage, it can be evidence to prove that the driver behind is to blame because they failed to keep a safe following distance. You should take pictures and record videos that clearly show the extent of the vehicle damage, as these visual records provide irrefutable evidence.
- Injuries. Unfortunately, injuries are not uncommon in car accidents. There were 5.4 million medically consulted injuries related to motor vehicle accidents last year. Both medical records and pictures of the injuries can shed some light on the facts surrounding the crash. In particular, the injuries’ severity can prove the impact point and indicate how intense the collision was. However, many injuries are not immediately apparent after a car accident. For this reason, see a doctor after a collision, regardless of whether you feel hurt or not. If you do not document your injuries within a reasonable amount of time, you will have difficulty proving the connection between your injuries and the accident.
- Witness testimony. Testimony provided by witnesses, including passengers, other drivers, and everyone who saw the crash, is an invaluable piece of evidence that helps police officers, insurance companies, judges, and juries to determine fault. For example, a witness may say that a driver failed to stop at a red light, eventually leading to the accident.
- Skid marks and debris on the road. The length of the skid marks in the road can indicate when the driver applied the brakes, which may give investigators some idea about how the accident happened. In addition, the way debris, including broken automobile parts, is scattered across the road can provide some valuable insights.
- Surveillance video footage. Collecting video evidence is arguably the most powerful evidence in any automobile accident case. If any cameras captured the moment of the crash, gaining access to the recorded footage is critical before it gets overwritten or lost.
- Cell phone records. These records can help prove negligence when there is suspicion that the other driver was not paying attention to the road. Cell phone records can reveal that the distracted driver was talking on the phone or sending a text when the collision occurred. According to the NHTSA, a driver who sends/reads a text message usually takes their eyes off the road for about five seconds, which, at 55 miles per hour, is like driving the length of a football field with the eyes closed.
Every car accident is unique, so the evidence to determine fault may differ from one case to another. That is why you might want an experienced attorney to review your case and explain what evidence can help prove fault in your specific circumstances.
Determining Faults in Different Car Accident Situations
Generally, the positioning of the vehicles on the road after a collision occurs and the damage done to all vehicles involved may give experts enough information to make conclusions about the fault, though there may be exceptions.
The type of the crash may also affect the determination of fault:
- Rear-end collisions. There are roughly 1.7 million rear-end accidents across the United States every year, causing injuries to about 500,000 people. In most cases, when someone rear-ends another vehicle, they may be mostly – if not entirely – at fault for the accident. Most rear-end collisions are preventable and occur because motorists do not maintain a safe following distance. However, there may be exceptions where the front driver bears most or all responsibility (e.g., they make an unsafe lane change).
- Head-on crashes. Head-on collisions occur when motorists fail to yield the right of way, run red lights or stop signs, or cross into oncoming traffic due to distracted or drowsy driving. As a rule of thumb, the driver whose vehicle departs their lane or enters wrong-way traffic is at fault for this type of accident.
- Sideswipe accidents. A sideswipe collision occurs when a vehicle hits another vehicle traveling in the same direction in an adjacent lane. This may occur due to distractions, impaired driving, making unsafe lane changes (changing lanes without checking rear-view and side-view mirrors), or merging into traffic. As a rule of thumb, the driver whose vehicle left the travel lane is at fault because motorists must always ensure it is safe to perform the maneuver before changing lanes or merging.
- Backing up accidents. Generally, the driver backing up has the greater duty to maintain care and yield the right of way to other vehicles and pedestrians. However, liability is not always clear in this type of accident. The primary exception is when the backing-up driver hits a stationary vehicle parked illegally.
Since every accident is unique, a complete and in-depth investigation is necessary to tell who is at fault instead of trying to make conclusions based on the type of the crash, the extent of vehicle damage, or the positioning of the vehicles at the scene.
Hire an experienced lawyer who can carefully and thoroughly investigate the accident and assess the actions of all parties involved.
How Police Determine Fault After a Car Accident
When parties involved in an accident report the crash to the police, the police officer who arrives at the scene becomes the first investigator in the case. The arriving police officer will usually prepare a police report based on their observations and investigation at the scene.
The officer will determine who they think was at fault by analyzing the physical evidence at the scene, including the positioning of the vehicles and damage caused to the vehicles, and talking to witnesses.
During the investigation, the officer may also interview all drivers involved in the crash and their passengers. Once the officer gathers enough information, they will fill out a report that may indicate who they think was at fault and how the accident occurred. The officer then submits the report to the department.
Sometimes, however, the officer may never identify who was responsible for causing the crash based on the information available to them. The report may not state which driver was at fault in that case.
However, the report may still document evidence that determines fault during future investigations performed by lawyers, insurance companies, accident reconstruction experts, and other parties.
Another thing to remember is that the police officer’s determination of fault is not final and may not always be accurate. Thus, even if a police report states that you were responsible for the accident, it does not automatically make you legally responsible for all the damages.
The investigation performed by your lawyer may prove that the officer’s conclusions were erroneous. If that is the case, your lawyer must demonstrate compelling evidence proving that the officer was wrong.
As part of their investigation, police officers may issue traffic citations to drivers involved in the crash when they have reason to believe that any traffic rules were violated (e.g., one of the drivers was traveling at a speed higher than the posted speed limit).
Even though the traffic citation can be evidence of negligence, the fact that a driver receives a traffic citation does not automatically make them at fault for the accident.
For example, even if a driver gets a traffic ticket for speeding, they may not be legally responsible for the accident if the other driver changed lanes without checking their side-view mirrors, which resulted in a sideswipe collision.
Liability is a complex issue, and the police often do not fully understand how the accident happened and who should share the blame.
How Insurance Companies Determine Fault After a Car Accident
When a car accident occurs, parties will generally file a claim for compensation with their respective insurance provider if they have the necessary coverage to pay for their medical bills and other losses.
Once you file a claim, the insurer will assign a claims adjuster to the case whose responsibilities include overseeing the investigation and settling the claim. The primary goal of the insurance company’s investigation is to determine who was at fault.
The investigation typically involves:
- Visiting the scene of the accident
- Looking at photos taken at the scene
- Speaking with witnesses
- Evaluating the claimant’s medical records
- Examining vehicle damage
- Working with accident reconstruction experts
Insurance companies determine fault based on negligence. A motorist is negligent when they fail to exercise reasonable care in the operation of a motor vehicle.
For example, if a car accident occurs because a motorist fails to check their side-view mirrors when changing lanes, the motorist may be deemed negligent. In the same situation, a reasonable driver should check their surroundings to ensure that changing lanes is safe before maneuvering.
However, the insurance company is not on the claimant’s side when conducting the investigation. On the contrary, insurers look for ways to minimize the amount they have to pay to a claimant, so you should not expect that the investigation will accurately determine fault or that it will be fair.
Insurers will always try to absolve a policyholder of fault whenever possible, often leaving unrepresented injury victims without the financial benefits they need and deserve.
How Courts Determine Fault After a Car Accident
If filing an insurance claim is not an option (for example, the at-fault party does not have sufficient coverage or any coverage at all) or does not yield the desired results, the victim can file a lawsuit to recover compensation for their losses and damages.
The plaintiff – the party who initiates legal action in court – has the burden to prove that the other party (called the defendant) acted negligently and that their negligence caused them harm.
Recovering damages through a lawsuit can be a lengthy and complicated process. To determine fault after a car accident, a judge or jury will hear arguments and evidence presented by both sides – the plaintiff and the defendant – and, if the defendant is negligent, award compensation to the plaintiff.
The evidence that may be admitted during court proceedings includes statements from eyewitnesses, medical records, photos from the scene, camera surveillance footage, testimonies from accident reconstruction experts, and more.
However, a court may refuse to admit evidence. Under the rules of evidence in courts, parties cannot introduce evidence that is not admissible.
A skilled lawyer can navigate the complicated litigation process and fight for your best interests in the courtroom.
Consult a Car Accident Attorney Right Away
The best way to identify fault and seek the compensation you need is to hire a personal injury lawyer to investigate what happened and represent you throughout the process. Consultations are free.