Is Fault Automatic in a Rear-End Car Accident Case?

The tailing driver is usually -- but not always -- at fault for a rear-end accident. Learn more.

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Car accidents occur in a variety of ways. From fender benders, to high-speed head-on collisions, the scenarios are almost endless. A common type of collision is when one car rear-ends another. There is a pretty well-known presumption that rear-end car accidents are always the fault of the driver who rear ended the car in front. This is not always the case. The purpose of this article is to describe why, and under what circumstances, the driver of the vehicle that rear ends another vehicle may not always be at fault. (Get the basics on Proving Fault for a Car Accident.)

Car Accidents and the Concept of Negligence

Negligence is the term used to describe when someone’s conduct falls below an established standard of care. Basically, you are considered to be negligent if your actions fall short of what a reasonable person would or would not have done under the circumstances that led to the accident.

To prove that one driver was negligent in connection with a car accident, you must first prove that a duty existed. This is pretty simple, since all drivers owe one another a duty to exercise care when operating a motor vehicle. Second, you must prove the other driver breached their duty. Drivers can breach their duty of reasonable care in a number of ways; for example, by:

  • failing to pay attention to the road and look out for hazards
  • failing to stop within a reasonable time
  • failing to drive at a reasonable speed (based not just on posted speed limits but also on road conditions)
  • failing to maintain control of the vehicle
  • failing to yield the right of way
  • failing to use turn signal(s), and
  • failing to follow at a safe distance.

Third, you must prove the other driver’s breach of duty was the cause of the accident.

Finally, you must establish that you were left with actual damages -- such as bodily injury or damage to your vehicle -- as a result of the accident.

Learn more about Car Accidents Caused by Negligence.

Establishing Fault for Rear-End Accidents

The driver of the car that rear-ends a leading vehicle will almost always be considered at least partially negligent. Every driver has a duty to follow other vehicles at a safe distance. The reason for this is because car drivers sometimes suddenly, and unexpectedly, slow down or come to a stop -- to avoid a hazard in the road, for example, or simply because of traffic congestion. You are expected to have enough distance between you and the car in front of you to prevent a collision if such an unanticipated stop becomes necessary.

However, it is possible for the driver of the car that gets rear-ended to be negligent as well. Consider the following scenarios:

  • a driver reverses suddenly
  • a driver stops suddenly to make a turn and fails to execute the turn
  • a driver’s brake lights do not function, and
  • a driver gets a flat tire, but does not pull over and does not engage the vehicle's hazard lights.

In each of these examples, the driver of the car that gets rear-ended would likely be considered negligent. The legal impact of that driver’s negligence will depend on how much that driver’s negligence contributed to the car accident, and how your state treats accident situations where more than one party is at fault.

Comparative Negligence vs. Contributory Negligence

If more than one driver is at fault for a car accident, the outcome will vary from state to state. A few states still follow a fairly harsh "contributory negligence" system, but most have adopted "comparative negligence" rules. Let's take a look at the difference between the two.

Contributory Negligence. Only a handful of states still subscribe to this system. Essentially, under the law of contributory negligence, if Driver A can show that Driver B's negligence contributed to the accident to any degree, Driver B is barred from recovering anything at all in a lawsuit against Driver B.

Comparative Negligence. Comparative negligence allocates fault between drivers. A driver’s liability may be reduced, but not necessarily eliminated, if the other driver is partly at fault for the accident. There are two variations of the comparative negligence system:

  • Pure comparative negligence: Liability is split according to the percentage of each driver's fault. So, if Driver A is 30% to blame for a car accident, and she has $10,000 in damages, she can only collect $7,000 from Driver B (who was 70% to blame for the accident.)
  • Modified comparative negligence: Liability is split according to the percentage of fault -- to a certain level. Once a plaintiff meets, or exceeds that level, the plaintiff is barred from recovery. That limit is typically 50%. In other words, if a plaintiff is more than 50% at fault for the accident, the plaintiff is barred from recovering anything at all from other at-fault drivers.

Learn more about Contributory and Comparative Negligence in Car Accident Cases.

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