Written by Avvo Staff

Car accident liability: who's at fault?

Fault and liability refer to responsibility for an accident and the obligation to make amends, usually by paying for damages caused. The person who caused the accident is at fault and is liable for any resulting injuries or property damage. Typically, a person is at fault due to:

  • Negligence: carelessly or unthinkingly doing something that most reasonable people would foresee causing harm.
  • Recklessness: willfully doing something that you know is likely to cause harm.

Types of Fault

Fault is often one of the largest factors affecting your ability to collect damages. A few states have no-fault rules, meaning that insurers pay their own clients' damages, regardless of who caused the accident. Most states take into account the amount of fault shared by each person and limit the amount of damages you can collect depending on how much you contributed to the accident.

States take one of three approaches:

Pure Contributory Negligence: If your actions played any part in causing the accident, you cannot collect damages, even if the other party was 99% responsible.

States following this rule: Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Washington DC.

Pure Comparative Fault: You are always entitled to compensation for damages, although it may be reduced by a percentage equal to your share of the fault.

Comparative fault states: New York, Rhode Island, Kentucky, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, California, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, South Dakota, Washington, and Alaska.

Proportional Comparative Fault: The person most at fault is not entitled to any compensation, while the person with less responsibility may receive damages based on share of fault. There are two versions: 50% Proportional Comparative Fault: Eligibility for compensation ends at 50% fault, so if the parties are equally to blame, neither can collect damages.

50% rule states: Maine, West Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado, North Dakota, Idaho, and Utah.

51% Proportional Comparative Fault: The eligibility cutoff is 51% fault. If both parties share blame equally, both are eligible for damages.

51% rule states: New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, and Hawaii.

How is Fault Determined

In most car accidents, determining fault is more complicated than looking at which car hit the other. Insurers and lawyers will look at police reports to see if officers mention negligence or issuing citations. Citations do not prove fault but can lend support to other evidence. Reliable witness statements can help sort out the sequence of events leading to the crash, and finding specific rules in the state vehicle code that a driver violated can also help assign fault. The final determination of fault is usually somewhat subjective. Two types of accidents where fault is almost always clear:

  • Rear-end Crashes: If you hit the car in front of you, you are at fault because you did not follow the safe driving rule that requires leaving enough room between the cars to be able to stop safely. You may share the blame if, for example, the car you hit did not have working brake lights or if someone pushed you into it.
  • Left Turn Crashes: If you are hit making a left turn, it is almost always because you tried to make an unsafe turn, making the accident your fault. Rare exceptions might be if the other person was speeding or ran a red light. However, you should normally see this behavior and wait before turning.

Driving safely can both reduce your chances of being in an accident and help you avoid liability if one does happen.

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