Car Accidents: Determining Fault by Location of Damage

When damage to the vehicles involved in an accident is analyzed, it can help piece together a narrative as to how the crash happened, and who might be at fault.

If you get into a traffic accident and the other driver's car insurance company denies that its insured was at fault for the accident, you can try to use the location of the damage to each vehicle to prove that the other driver was in fact liable.

Perhaps the type of car accident in which it is most often necessary to use vehicle damage to prove liability is a right-angle collision (often known as a "T-bone" or broadside crash). Right-angle collisions can occur at stop signs or traffic lights, when someone is pulling out of a driveway, and when someone makes a left turn across oncoming traffic.

Let’s look at a couple of examples of how the nature, location, and extent of vehicle damage can help prove fault for a car accident, and how to best preserve this kind of evidence.

Using Vehicle Damage to Prove Crash Liability: Examples

Example 1: Let’s say you're driving along a residential street when someone suddenly pulls out of a driveway to your right and broadsides you. How can you use the damage to each vehicle to prove that the other driver was at fault?

One indicator is when the other driver hits you on your passenger side, leaving extensive damage to that area of your vehicle. Since the damage isn't to your front right fender, but is to the middle of your car, that presents fairly solid evidence that the other driver simply wasn’t paying attention when he or she entered the roadway.

But the evidence does not always present such a straightforward picture. If, for example, the other driver pulled out just before you got to the driveway, so that the damage is on the front end of your vehicle and on the other vehicle's driver’s side, now the picture indicates that you hit the other vehicle. Certainly, it could have been because the other driver pulled out in front of you so fast that you were unable to stop in time. But the evidence also supports the theory that the other pulled out, was waiting for traffic going the other way to clear, and it was you who wasn’t paying attention, so that you slammed right into the other vehicle.

Example 2: You're driving straight and someone makes a left turn in front of you. Most drivers in your situation will try to swerve to the right to avoid the driver cutting in front of them. So, if the damage is to your left front corner or left front side, that can indicate that you tried to avoid the accident by swerving. If the damage to the other car is to the right front corner, that is evidence that the other driver wasn’t paying attention and just cut in front of oncoming traffic.

But if the damage to the turning car is to the right rear corner, that is evidence that it may have been the oncoming driver who was not paying attention. The further toward the turning car's right rear the damage is, the more that indicates that the turning car had almost finished executing the turn. The further the turning car gets across the oncoming traffic lane, the more likely it is that the driver going straight will be found at least partially at fault for not slowing down and avoiding the collision.

Example 3: If someone runs a red light, that driver will often hit the other car broadside. This is because the non-negligent driver was simply going through the intersection with the green light, when the at-fault driver ran through the red light. In that case, the damage will generally be to the front of the negligent driver’s vehicle, and to the driver's side of the non-negligent person's vehicle. (Note: The legal concept of negligence is used to establish fault for a car accident.)

How to Gather Evidence of Vehicle Damage

The three things that you absolutely must do after a car accident -- especially when it appears that the location of vehicle damage is going to be important -- are:

  • get the names of witnesses
  • take pictures before leaving the scene, and
  • call the police.

If there were any witnesses to your accident, make sure that you get their names and contact information. Liability in a car accident case can often be a matter of your word versus the other driver's word, so witnesses can be critical.

If you can, take pictures of the car accident scene immediately. Take as many pictures as you can -- of both cars, the debris from the crash, and anything else relevant at the accident scene -- from as many angles as you can.

Many states have a law requiring that a local law enforcement agency be informed if a car accident causes bodily injury or property damage that exceeds a certain amount ($500 or $1,000, for example). Whatever the nature of the accident, if you believe that the other driver was at fault and that his/her liability might not be completely obvious, you may want to call the local police/sheriff's department and ask that an officer come to the scene. Any police report generated in connection with the accident will often include the responding officer's notes regarding the location and extent of vehicle damage.

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