In the language of personal injury law, the person who is "at fault" for an incident is legally responsible for the harm caused by the incident. So, in a car accident case, the person who was at fault for the crash is typically financially responsible for crash-related injuries and property damage.
To get compensation, an injured party has to prove:
In this article, we'll focus on how to prove that the other party was careless (also called "negligent"). In a car accident, drivers can be negligent when they do something they shouldn't do (like speeding), or fail to do something that they should've done (like rolling through a stop sign). Sometimes it's obvious when a driver is negligent. For example, when a driver rear-ends you, that driver was almost certainly careless. (See below for more examples of "no-doubt" liability.) In other cases, a breach of duty might be harder to prove.
The issue of fault is important because nearly all states follow a "fault" system when it comes to financial responsibility for a car accident. (About a dozen states follow a"no-fault" or hybrid system.)
In "fault" states, the person at fault for the crash (or, more often, the at-fault driver's insurer) will have to pay for the losses of the other driver, passengers, and anyone else harmed by the accident. Losses (called "damages") include things like car repairs, medical bills, lost income, and pain and suffering.
If you and the other driver share fault for the accident, you might avoid full liability under a comparative or contributory negligence defense. For example, say you were making a left turn and you hit a van that was speeding through an intersection. You might be 80% at fault for failing to make a safe left turn, and the driver of the van might be 20% at fault for speeding. Your insurance company might only have to pay 80% of the van driver's losses because the van driver was 20% at fault for the accident.
Your ability to prove that the other driver was at fault for a car accident (or your ability to dispute a finding that you were at fault) can be the difference between getting a payout and getting nothing. It might also affect your current and future car insurance rates and your ability to pursue (or defend against) a personal injury liability lawsuit.
Make sure you exchange information with all drivers and others involved in your accident. That means getting names, addresses, driver's license numbers, car insurance companies/policy numbers, phone numbers, and email addresses. Take down the license plate numbers of any vehicles involved in the crash too.
After a car accident, a state or local law enforcement officer might come to the scene (almost certainly if someone is injured). An officer might interview you, the other driver, and any witnesses and then write a report. The report might include the officer's opinion that someone violated a specific traffic law and that the violation caused the accident. You can request a copy of the report from the law enforcement agency for a fee, or you can wait and ask the insurance adjuster who is handling your claim for a copy. Learn more about police reports and car accident claims.
In most states, you need to report a car accident involving injuries or vehicle damage over a certain amount to local law enforcement. Depending on the rules in your state, you might also need to notify the Department of Motor Vehicles (or your state's equivalent agency) about the accident and follow any required protocol. For example, in California, you need to report a car accident to the DMV within 10 days of the crash if:
It's important to be careful what you say at the scene of the car accident. Your words can be used against you during the insurance claim process and in court. Don't admit guilt or apologize until you have all of the information.
Before you get your car repaired, take pictures of it (at the scene of the accident, if possible). The location of the damage can be revealing. For example, if there is rear-end damage to your car, you'll have a leg up in proving the other driver was at fault.
If you're aware of any eyewitnesses to the accident, try to get their contact information. You might want to get in touch with them later or ask them to write down a description of the accident at the scene. Certainly, the insurance adjuster and your attorney will be interested in hearing what any neutral witnesses have to say about the accident and what might have caused it.
If you can, take pictures of the accident scene from all directions and distances. Be sure to document all traffic signs, skid marks, the location of any vehicle debris, road conditions, and anything else that might help paint the picture of how and why the car accident happened.
Research traffic laws in your state. You can find these laws (called statutes) in what's called the "Vehicle Code" in most states. Your state's motor vehicle department might have a book with basic traffic laws (sometimes called "The Rules of the Road"). These resources are available online or at public libraries. Focus your research on traffic rules that might have come into play in your particular accident. Analyze these rules against any traffic control devices (red lights, stop signs), yield signs, and other circumstances surrounding your crash, and see if you can prove that the other driver committed a traffic violation and caused the accident.
At the first hint of any pain or discomfort, or just a sense that something's not quite right with a particular part of your body, see your doctor or go to the emergency room. Your well-being is the priority here, but if you end up making an insurance claim after your car accident, you'll need to be able to show that you received prompt medical attention for legitimate injuries. Few things support an injury claim better than medical records describing the nature and extent of those injuries, and their effects on your life. Learn more about the importance of getting medical treatment after a car accident.
Under the terms of your car insurance policy, you're almost always required to tell the company about any incident that might trigger coverage or lead to the filing of a claim. So when you're in any kind of car accident, it's important to let your insurer know about it right away. Learn more about contacting your insurance company after a car accident.
Most insurance companies have online claim-filing tools. You can usually use these to file your claim and submit supporting documentation. If it makes more sense to file a claim directly with the at-fault driver's insurance company (this is called a "third-party" claim), your own insurer might be able to help get you started with that process. Learn more about starting a car accident claim.
The insurance company should be fairly responsive once your claim is filed, and it'll probably let you know if any records are missing or if they need any additional information to investigate the accident and analyze your claim. But don't hesitate to check in with the insurer and ask about the status of your claim, especially if there seems to be a delay. Ask if there's anything you can do to keep things moving, and be sure to send over any relevant records or new information as it comes in. Learn more about how the insurance company investigates a car accident claim.
If you've tried to resolve your car insurance claim on your own, and the insurance company is disputing a crucial point (like fault for the accident) or simply isn't coming to the negotiating table with a reasonable settlement offer, you might need to escalate things by filing a car accident lawsuit in court.
Taking the "I'll see you in court" stance is sure to get the insurance company to sit up and take your claim more seriously, but continuing to go it alone probably isn't the best strategy at this point.
There's no substitute for a lawyer's experience and expertise once your car accident case proceeds to court. Between legal filings, evidence-gathering, and the discovery process, a lot goes into handling a car accident lawsuit. This is also when settlement talks will ramp up—the insurance company will be eager to wrap up your claim rather than continue spending resources on it—so your lawyer's negotiating skills will be key at this stage. Learn more about how a car accident attorney can help.
In most car accident claim scenarios, you're not going to receive a settlement from the at-fault driver's insurer before your first accident-related medical bills come in, especially if your injuries are serious and treatment is ongoing. So those bills will need to be paid in the meantime.
If you have certain kinds of car insurance coverage (like personal injury protection or medical payments), you might be able to file claims for reimbursement of medical bills as they come in. But chances are you'll need to use your health insurance to pay for treatment of your car accident injuries, at least initially, until the fault picture is sorted out and you reach a satisfactory settlement. Learn more about using health insurance for car accident injuries.
If you don't have health insurance, your lawyer might be able to arrange for necessary medical treatment from a network of health care professionals who are willing to treat your car accident injuries now, and receive payment later on down the line.
Beyond injuries, fault for a car accident also dictates financial responsibility for vehicle damage. The driver who caused the accident is liable for all resulting property damage. So, as long as the at-fault driver has adequate property damage liability coverage, you'll make a claim for damage to your vehicle through that coverage. (Learn more about what happens when the insurance company says your car is a total loss.)
If you're involved in certain kinds of vehicle accidents, the other driver is at fault 99% of the time, and insurance companies hardly bother to argue about it.
If someone hits you from behind, it is virtually never your fault, regardless of why you stopped. A basic rule of the road requires a driver to be able to stop his or her vehicle safely if traffic is stopped ahead. A driver who cannot stop safely is not driving as safely as the person in front.
The other sure-fire part of the rear-end accident claim is that the vehicle damage often proves how it happened: If one car's front end is damaged and the other's rear end is also damaged, there can't be much argument about who struck whom. Of course, the driver of the car that hit you may have a claim against someone who caused you to stop suddenly, or against a third car that pushed his car into yours, but that doesn't change his or her responsibility for injuries to you and damage to your car.
Keep in mind, however, that even if you've been rear-ended, your own carelessness may reduce your compensation under the rule of "comparative negligence" in a few circumstances. A common example is when one or both of your brake or tail lights are out, especially if the accident happened at night. Another example is if you had mechanical problems but failed to do all you could to move the vehicle off the road.
Read more about fault in rear-end car collisions.
A car making a left turn is almost always liable for a collision with a car coming straight in the other direction. Exceptions to this near-automatic rule are rare and difficult to prove, but they can occur if:
As with a rear-end collision, the location of the damage on the cars sometimes makes it difficult for the driver to argue that the accident happened in some way other than during a left turn.
For more information, get the basics on proving fault in personal injury accidents. And for a step-by-step guide to the car accident claim process, check out How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Joseph Matthews (Nolo).
You might also want to talk to a car accident lawyer about your options and your best path forward, especially if the crash resulted in serious injuries. Learn more about finding the right injury lawyer. When you're ready, you can connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.