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Proving Fault in an Auto Accident

car accident prove fault

How do you prove fault in a car accident without a camera filming your every move?

Proving fault in a car accident case is a matter of examining the accident scene, reviewing police records, speaking with witnesses, and seeing where the incident falls under codes and regulations. The degree of fault is determined by the state in which the accident took place and which system of fault the state follows.

After an automobile accident, it is imperative to determine who is at fault – that way, insurance companies can figure out where to send the bills.

This allocation of blame allows for the law and insurance systems to flow as smoothly as they can (which, as many argue, isn’t very smoothly at all).

However, assigning responsibility is often not so simple a task as a police officer arriving on the scene, eyeing the people involved and saying, “All right! You there, the guilty-looking one! It’s time to pay up!” And then there’s the case of driverless cars, too.

In fact, some accident cases will slog on for years as they fight over the issue of who’s at fault.

Methods of proving fault in a car accident

When a car accident happens, there are generally three ways of determining who is responsible. (Keep in mind that there are many cases in which both parties share a portion of liability.)

Clear-cut cases

These are incidents where liability is assumed or is overwhelmingly evident just by looking at the scene.

*Rear-end accidents

Drivers who rear end another motorist are automatically assumed to be at fault. Most situations that involve rear-end collisions show this to be true. The driver behind the one in front was either too close, too close—or too close.

However, there are certain instances in which the driver in front of a rear-end collision is liable, such as a driver who is illegally parked in a highway lane and is struck from behind, or one who is driving with his lights turned off in a high-traffic area at night. Most of the time, though, a rear-end driver who hits the person in front is tailgating and thus is responsible.

*Left-turn crashes

These cases are also generally pinned on a specific driver; in this case, it’s the motorist who is making the left turn. As with rear-end collision, victims of a left-turn collision may also be at fault, like if they run a red light, it’s not their right of way, or they are going over the speed limit.

Police and other official reports

The police report will be one of the main tools used for proving or disproving liability. It will contain both parties' versions of the crash, as well as the officer's personal observations and those of witnesses. Much of the time, witnesses will be impossible to reach again or will leave the state, and what they say in the report will be their only testimony. Make sure to get their contact information if you can, because you are definitely going to need it.

Enjuris tip: Always get witnesses’ contact information if you can. Very often they leave town or are just impossible to reach again. You will need them in the future for your case – make friends with them! Be chummy and get that phone number!

In addition to the police, a mechanic or body shop may also be helpful in proving who is at fault. Their assessment of the damage to your car will help illustrate points of impact, speed of the impacting vehicle and other important details about the wreck. Make sure to have everything documented for your attorney and keep copies for yourself.

Traffic laws

The ultimate authority as to who is at fault will be the traffic statutes and regulations themselves. The codes and regulations governing your traffic incident will be on the books, so you can look them up in the library or online. It might be difficult for you to understand the meanings and requirements of the different provisions – especially if each has filing requirements in the trial court, each with its own deadlines – which means you might want to enlist the help of an attorney.

Degrees of fault

There is also the question of how much fault we’re talking about in your state. There are four different systems used for determining damages in the United States:

  • Pure comparative negligence
  • Pure contributory negligence
  • Modified comparative negligence – 50% bar rule
  • Modified comparative negligence – 51% bar rule

Contributory negligence:

This was a common law defense that stated if two people were in an accident, the injured person could recover only if he was absolutely not at fault. This was called the “1% rule” and is now called “pure contributory negligence.” Most states have moved away from this because it’s quite harsh. Only five states still adhere to this system.

Comparative negligence:

In this system an injured person can still recover even if he was partially responsible for the accident. His recovery might be reduced depending on how responsible he was, though. States using a comparative negligence system assign a percentage of fault to each party, and this is where it breaks into three branches:

  • Pure comparative negligence
  • Modified comparative negligence – 50% rule
  • Modified comparative negligence – 51% rule

In the pure comparative negligence system, which 13 states currently follow, a percentage of fault is assigned to each party and then damages are split accordingly. That way an injured person can recover damages even if he was 99% at fault in causing the accident.

With modified comparative fault (50% rule), which 12 states follow, an injured person can only recover if his fault in causing the accident is 50% or less. The remaining 21 states follow the 51% rule, which means that fault can’t reach 51%.

As you can see, there is very little rhyme or reason at the state level, and contacting a state-specific attorney would be advisable.

Attorneys who specialize in motor vehicle law will be invaluable because they understand the legal details and nuances that are found in each state. If you’re not sure how to proceed or just want to ask around, consider checking out the Enjuris law firm directory!


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