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Car Accident Liability: Proving Fault in a Car Crash

In almost all car, bike, or motorcycle accidents, it's important to prove who was liable or responsible. It may seem obvious to those who were there which driver was negligent, but proving fault in a car crash isn't always so simple for insurance companies. You will make a stronger argument to your insurer if you can support your side of the story with evidence.

The following information will help you prove fault in a car accident and ultimately strengthen your personal injury case.

Car Accident Cases and Police Reports

Police don't always come to the scene of an auto accident. But if they do, the officer will probably have to make some sort of official report about the accident.

The police generally come to accident scenes that involve injuries, but they often stop at non-injury accidents as well. If they do show up at your accident, be sure to ask the officer for the report number and how to get a copy of the report once filed.

If the police don't come to the scene, you may have to report the accident to the closest police station if injuries or significant property damage have occurred. After filing a police report, investigators may pick up your report and conduct their own inquiries. You can obtain copies of these reports.

Police reports are written recollections of the officer that studied the accident. These reports often contain great evidence about liability, such as the police officer's opinion that one car was speeding based on the officer's observations of the length of the skid marks. Officers also often indicate whether they issued any traffic tickets at the scene of an accident or whether there were any eyewitnesses.

The police report can be one of the most important pieces of evidence you present to your insurance company. Insurance companies may drag their feet about making car accident insurance coverage decisions without first obtaining a copy of the police report.

Amending a Police Report

If there's a mistake in a police report, it can be fixed. If the mistake involves a factual error, like an incorrect vehicle or insurance information, you can generally amend the report by showing the police that information.

However, amending a disputed fact, like fault determination, is more difficult. Police departments often have different procedures for objecting to a report. You should contact the department involved in your accident to learn about their procedure. Often, you simply add your statement to the accident report.

While it's difficult to overcome a fault determination, it's not impossible. You should consult with a car accident lawyer to determine the strength of your case.

Proving Fault in a Car Crash: State Traffic Laws

State traffic laws are another great place to find support for your argument that the other driver was at fault or violated their duty of care to you. These laws are often condensed into simple-to-read "Rules of the Road" that may be available at your local DMV. You can also find vehicle codes online at:

  • State government websites
  • Public law libraries
  • FindLaw's Codes section

After you've found the law that applies to your accident, you're in a better position to negotiate with the other driver's insurance company to cover the cost of your medical expenses. For example, a law relating to yielding the right of way may be useful if you were involved in a merging accident. Have the exact wording of the code, as it won't help you to cite a law incorrectly to an insurance company.

No-Fault Car Accident Liability

Certain kinds of accidents will almost always be one driver's fault. In these situations, insurance companies rarely argue about which driver is responsible. The adjuster will most likely attempt to settle your insurance claim immediately.

No-Fault Insurance States

In "no-fault" states, each driver's own insurance pays for their own injuries up to the limits of their insurance policy, regardless of who caused the accident. This system was designed to lower insurance costs by avoiding costly litigation over who was at fault. It also allows for faster payment of injury claims.

The states that have no-fault laws include Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Utah. In these states, drivers are usually required to buy personal injury protection (PIP) coverage as part of their auto insurance.

No-fault laws don't apply to vehicle damage. That's still handled on an at-fault basis, which means the driver who caused the accident is responsible for paying for the damage.

At-Fault and Comparative Negligence States

In contrast, "at-fault" or "tort" states determine liability based on the driver who caused the accident. The at-fault driver's insurance is responsible for paying medical expenses, property damage, and possibly additional damages for pain and suffering.

Some states also use a "comparative negligence" or "contributory negligence" system. In these states, you can still recover damages if you were partially at fault for the accident, but your compensation may be reduced according to your share of the blame.

Fault in Rear-End Accidents

Rear-end collisions are one of the most common types of accidents. If a car runs a stop sign and hits you from behind, it'll almost never be your fault.

One basic driving rule is that you're supposed to leave enough room in front of your car to stop in case the car in front of you stops suddenly. If the driver behind you couldn't stop, they probably weren't driving safely.

When one car's rear end is damaged, and another car's front end is damaged, there really isn't much to argue about who hit whom. But the driver who hit you may have a claim against a third-party driver that caused you to stop suddenly. Or they may have a claim against the car behind them that pushed them into your car. This doesn't affect their liability for the damage to your car.

There are some rare and limited exceptions, including:

  • Vehicle accidents on inclines where your car may have rolled back as a result of failure to apply brakes or clutch
  • Accidents where you may have accelerated your car while mistakenly leaving the shifter in reverse

Even if the other driver's negligence caused the accident, you may also be partially at fault if your own negligence or traffic violation contributed to the accident. For example, you may also bear some comparative negligence, which will reduce your monetary compensation, if:

  • Your brake lights were out
  • You were driving over the speed limit
  • You had a flat tire and decided to stop in the middle of the road

When You Might Be at Fault Even if Your Car Was Stopped

While rear-end collisions typically place fault on the rear driver, there are circumstances where the front driver may also share some of the blame:

  • Improper or Unexpected Stops: If you stop your vehicle abruptly without a clear reason, especially in high-speed areas where it's less expected, you could be partially at fault. This could include situations where you stopped to check your phone, look at a map, or any other non-emergency stop in a driving lane.
  • Faulty Vehicle Equipment: If your vehicle's brake lights are not working and you stop, the driver behind you may not realize you're stopping. In such cases, you could be held partially responsible for the accident. Regular vehicle maintenance and checks are important for this reason.
  • Stopping in a No-Stop Zone: If you stop your vehicle in a no-stopping zone or a hazardous location, such as a freeway, a curve, or a blind spot, and a vehicle hits you from behind, you could be found partially at fault for the accident.
  • Reverse Accidents: If you thought you were in park or drive and you were actually in reverse, then you could be found at fault if you hit the car behind you.
  • Not Pulling Over with a Disabled Vehicle: If your vehicle has a problem, such as a flat tire, and you don't pull over to the side of the road safely but instead stop in a driving lane, you could be found at fault.
  • Not Using Hazard Lights in an Emergency: If you have to stop in the roadway due to an emergency and you do not use your hazard lights to warn other drivers, you could be found at fault if a car hits you from behind.

Left-Turn Collisions

Left turn accidents are almost always the fault of the motorist taking the left turn. Cars coming straight into an intersection will have the right of way in most cases, making the car turning left responsible for the accident.

If the car going straight through the intersection is speeding or runs a red light, this may shift some or all of the liability away from the car turning left. If the car started turning left while it was safe to do so but was forced to stop because of some unforeseen circumstance, then some of the liability may be shifted.

Medical Bills and Liability in Car Accidents

In the aftermath of a car accident, determining who is responsible for medical bills can be a complicated process. The responsibility for medical bills often depends on:

  • State injury law
  • Where the accident happened
  • The specifics of each driver's insurance policy
  • Who was at fault in the accident

Who Is Liable for Medical Bills?

In no-fault states, your own insurance policy will usually cover your medical bills, regardless of who caused the accident. This is often done through Personal Injury Protection (PIP) coverage. However, if your medical bills exceed the limits of your PIP coverage, you may need to seek compensation from the at-fault driver's insurance company or your own health insurance.

In fault-based states, the at-fault driver's insurance company is typically responsible for paying your medical bills. However, they may only pay after you've settled your claim, which could take months or even years. In the meantime, you may have to pay the bills yourself or get them covered by your health insurance.

The Role of Medical Records

Medical records play a huge role in a car accident case. They help establish:

  • The extent of your injuries
  • The treatment required
  • The associated costs

Medical records are an essential piece of evidence when negotiating with insurance companies or in court if your case goes to trial.

After an accident, seek medical attention immediately, even if you don't feel injured. Some injuries may not be immediately clear. A delay in seeking treatment could be used against you by the insurance company.

Always follow your doctor's treatment plan. Any deviation could be seen as an indication that your injuries are not as severe as claimed.

Your medical records should accurately reflect:

  • The injuries you sustained
  • The treatment you received
  • Any future treatment you may need
  • The impact of the injuries on your daily life

Make sure to get copies of all medical records related to the accident, including:

  • Ambulance service notes
  • Emergency room records
  • Doctor's notes
  • Physical therapy reports
  • Diagnostic test results like X-rays or MRIs

Additionally, keep track of all medical bills, as they will serve as proof of your medical expenses.

Remember that while your medical records are private, once you make a claim for injuries after a car accident, you may have to provide these records to the insurance company. But you should only provide records related to the injuries from the accident and not your entire medical history.

Have Questions About Proving Fault in a Car Accident Claim? Ask a Personal Injury Attorney for Legal Advice

While fender-benders typically can be resolved by exchanging insurance information, even minor accidents can sometimes result in serious injuries. If you've been injured in a car accident, consult with a local car accident attorney to learn about your legal options during a free case evaluation. If you have a valid injury claim, many auto accident attorneys will wait until you have settled your case to collect their fees.

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