One of the trickiest aspects of any car accident case is figuring out fault. Accidents occur quickly, and recollections are often unreliable. Sometimes there's credible witness testimony or video footage of the collision to make things easier, but often you need to look harder for clues to liability, including:
Deciding who was at fault for a car accident is important because it usually dictates who will bear financial responsibility for injuries and other losses ("damages") resulting from the crash.
Generally speaking, the person who causes the accident will pay for any vehicle damage or personal injuries that result. Most of the time, the at-fault driver won't pay this money themselves; their car insurance company will.
A big exception is accidents in no-fault car insurance states, where injured drivers will make a claim with their own car insurance companies, regardless of who was at fault for the accident. (Note: Injured passengers can usually make a claim under the no-fault policy of the driver of the vehicle in which they were riding at the time of the accident.) And then there's uninsured drivers. Learn more about what happens if the other driver has no car insurance, and when you're in an accident but you're uninsured.
With most accidents, it's the car insurance company that will take the lead in determining who was responsible for causing the crash. In many cases, it'll be a claims adjuster who conducts the investigation. This investigation may consist of interviewing the drivers and passengers from the accident, as well as any witnesses who saw what happened. The claims adjuster may also look at photographs, car repair estimates, a police report, and video surveillance footage.
(Note: It's a different story when your car accident case ends up in court. In the very rare event that a car accident lawsuit goes all the way to trial, it's the judge or jury that will consider all the evidence and decide who should be held legally responsible for causing the underlying crash.)
Depending on the accident, the first part of the investigation will be whatever the claims adjuster can accomplish from the adjuster's office. But if necessary, they will head out for some fieldwork to complete the investigation.
This could include visiting the site of the accident and checking out the vehicle damage before repairs take place. By reviewing vehicle damage and other physical clues from the accident, an investigator will have a significant piece of the puzzle for figuring out who caused the accident. Get more details on how insurance companies investigate a car accident.
By looking at the damage to a vehicle after a car accident, a claims adjuster can sometimes piece together a viable picture of what happened
For instance, the adjuster may review skid marks, either from photographs or during a visit to the accident scene. By measuring the length of the skid marks and taking into account other facts about the vehicles and road conditions, the adjuster can estimate how fast a vehicle was traveling before impact.
Another way to estimate a vehicle's speed is to examine the extent of the damage. As you can imagine, the faster a vehicle moves in an accident, the more damage it'll sustain upon impact. Then there's the fact that certain safety devices, like an airbag, will only activate under certain conditions. If those airbags deployed, the adjuster can assume those conditions were present at the time of the accident.
The location of the damage may also help determine what a vehicle was doing at the time of the collision. Damage to the passenger side of the vehicle in an intersection raises the possibility that the driver was turning left when the accident occurred.
Then there's looking at the overall accident scene. Skid marks are one major clue, but another factor is the positioning of the vehicles after the accident. An adjuster can compare photographs immediately following the accident with the actual accident scene to ascertain where a vehicle was in relation to other vehicles and any other parts of the road.
By looking at the condition and location of landmarks involved in an accident (like a sign or parking meter), the adjuster can decide if a car was in motion or parked at the time of impact.
The location of the damage, along with other factors, can help determine fault. If Vehicle 1 is hit broadside (t-boned) in an intersection where Vehicle 2 had a stop sign and Vehicle 1 did not, then there's a strong possibility that Vehicle 2 ran the stop sign when it hit Vehicle 1. So, the driver of Vehicle 2 might be thought to bear most (if not all) of the fault for a t-bone or side impact accident.
Damage to the back of a vehicle strongly implies its driver is not at fault for the accident. Generally speaking, if someone rear-ends you, they will be mostly, if not completely, at fault for the accident. There could be exceptions, such as a car that's rear-ended while cutting off another vehicle, leaving too little space to stop. In this situation, the car that's rear-ended could be at fault for the accident. But in the vast majority of cases, the tailing driver is at fault for a rear-end car accident.
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.)
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:
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.
Proving fault after an accident starts with gathering evidence. Often, simply providing the information to the car insurance claims adjuster or opposing counsel is enough to resolve the matter. But in cases where fault is in dispute and there's a lot at stake, it's a good idea to consider consulting an experienced car accident lawyer who can present your best case and work toward a fair outcome.