Written by attorney John Winston Phillips

Determining Fault in Your Car Accident

Insurance companies must determine who was at fault in a car accident before they offer compensation for any losses that the parties have incurred. The most common basis for determining fault is whether a driver operated his or her vehicle in a negligent manner. Ultimately, negligence boils down to a simple inquiry: whether a driver acted as a “reasonably prudent" person would under like circumstances.

While the ambiguity of the “reasonably prudent" standard invites dispute, California law allows fact-finders to presume negligence where an accident occurred as a result of any of the following conduct:

Failing to Pay Attention

California courts have held in numerous instances that part of the duty of a reasonably prudent driver includes keeping a lookout for other vehicles, objects and hazards in the road. To this end, Leeper v Nelson (1956) 139 Cal.App.2d 65 stated: “All drivers of vehicles on a public highway are required by law to keep a vigilant lookout ahead so as to avoid, if reasonably possible, a collision with any other vehicle or person lawfully upon such highway."

Driving an Inappropriate Speed

Driving either too fact or too slow can create a presumption of negligence. Scott v Texaco, Inc. (1966) 239 Cal. App. 2d 431; Hardin v. San Jose City Lines (1953) 41 Cal. 2d 432. The California Vehicle Code specifically states in this regard: “No person shall drive a vehicle upon a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable or prudent having due regard for weather, visibility, the traffic on, and the surface and width of, the highway, and in no event at a speed which endangers the safety of persons or property."

Following Too Closely

California Vehicle Code section 21703 provides: “The driver of a motor vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed of such vehicle and the traffic upon, and the condition of, the roadway." Failing to maintain a safe distance, also known as tailgating, gives rise to a presumption of negligence. Pittman v. Boiven (1967) 249 Cal. App. 2d 207.

Failing to Maintain One’s Vehicle

Drivers have a duty to inspect and maintain their vehicles. Yamaha Motor Corp. v. Paseman (1990) 219 Cal. App. 958; Dyer v. Superior Court (1997) 56 Cal. App. 4th 61. If a driver’s failure to maintain his or her vehicle results in a collision, it creates a presumption of negligence against his or her favor.

Failing to Maintain or Turn On One’s Headlights

California Vehicle Code section 24400 provides: “A motor vehicle, other than a motorcycle, shall be operated during darkness, or inclement weather, or both, with at least two lighted headlamps . . ." Cases have specifically determined that failure to maintain and properly operate headlights creates a presumption of negligence relevant to determining fault in a motor-vehicle accident. Matlock v. Farmers Mercantile Co. (1968) 258 Cal. App. 2d 362.

Please bear in mind that the foregoing list is not all-inclusive—its purpose is simply to give you an idea of the factors that insurance companies will consider in making a determination of negligence. Please also understand that parties may rebut presumptions of negligence with contrary evidence and, therefore, demonstrating that a party is guilty of any of the above does not necessarily mean he or she is liable for your loss.

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