How Is Fault Determined in a Car Accident?

There are millions of car accidents in the U.S. every year. Depending on how long you've been driving, you may have already been involved in one. You probably checked for injuries first, called the police, and then wondered "Whose fault was it?" Then things got complicated.

Why Fault Matters

Determining fault is one of the most important steps after a car accident, as the at-fault party's insurance company generally helps pay for damages to the other driver. Most states look at fault to determine "who pays who" after a car accident, but some don’t.

States that don't operate on a fault-based system are called no-fault states. Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Utah have some form of no-fault law.

"No-fault auto insurance laws require every driver to file a claim with their own insurance company after an accident, regardless of who was at fault," notes the Insurance Information Institute. Drivers in these state are legally required to buy Personal Injury Protection (PIP), or no-fault insurance, with their car insurance policies. 

Understanding Your State's Definition of Fault

Insurance companies rely on a state's legal definition of negligence to help determine who is at fault in an accident and to pay damages accordingly. There are a few types of negligence that could come into play. It all depends on your state.

Two of the most common types are comparative and contributory.

  • With comparative negligence, you can be found to be partially at fault (some percentage) and only seek damages in proportion to that percentage. Percentages vary by state and are based on the totality of evidence. The final percentage is based on the claims department's professional review of all the gathered evidence, knowledge of relevant state law, and their expertise and experience.
  • With contributory negligence, it's all or nothing. You're found to be either 100% blame-free or not, and can only file with the other insurance company if you fall into the blame-free category. An example of a 100% blame-free situation would be if your car was parked legally and another driver ran into it.

Stuff That's Used to Help Determine Fault

An insurance company has to be somewhat of a detective to determine who is at fault in a car accident. They'll rely on the police report, but also other materials or "clues."

You can help make sure the police report is accurate and helpful by taking pictures of both vehicles. Don’t move your vehicle until the police show up and can analyze the scene. Work with the police officer to provide as much detail as possible, be truthful, and identify any witnesses who may be able to help explain what happened during the accident.

The insurance company will also take into account statements from all relevant parties. These statements can include the officer’s opinion from the police report, if available, along with witness statements. The company will take into account the physical damage to the vehicle, the nature and location of the damage, and any other relevant evidence that is brought to their attention.

Should You Admit Fault at the Accident?

"Due to the potential ramifications of being found at fault for the accident, many personal injury lawyers advise clients not to admit fault at the scene of the accident," finds HG.org.

Your best course of action at the scene of a car accident is to cooperate with the police. State what happened as clearly as you can and try to avoid making assumptions. It's up to the police officer and the insurance company to put the whole picture together using every clue available.

Car Accidents, Fault & Car Insurance Rates

If you’ve ever thought, “I got rear-ended — oh no, now my rate is going to go up,” know that this isn’t necessarily true. If you’re not at fault in a car accident, your rate will most likely not go up. This is especially true if another driver rear-ends you.

"The general rule is that if a vehicle gets hit from behind, the rear driver is at fault," notes HG.org.

If you're found to be at fault in a car accident, your insurance rates will not increase overnight. Your insurance company will look at the big picture, including your claim, driving, and policy history to determine if, when, and by how much your insurance rate could go up. If your affordable car insurance becomes not-so-affordable, you can work to lower your rates by becoming eligible for different car insurance discounts, picking a higher deductible, or driving an older vehicle. (And try these tips for feeling better after a car accident!)

While we can't help you avoid an accident, we can help you stay prepared with the right information and coverage. Call 1-877-463-4732 or come into a Direct Auto location near you to learn more about car insurance requirements in your state and how to get the best insurance coverage for your needs.

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How Is Fault Determined in a Car Accident?