Liability in a Single-Vehicle Accident

The driver is almost always deemed at fault for a single-car accident, but there are notable exceptions.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

Most traffic accidents involve two or more vehicles colliding with one another—think rear-end and side-impact crashes, for example. But plenty of accidents involve only one vehicle. Here's what to know:

  • Single vehicle crashes can stem from a number of causes, including driver negligence or even recklessness.
  • The driver isn't always considered at fault for a single vehicle accident.
  • Disputing a fault finding can be crucial if you suffered significant injury in the accident and/or the crash caused extensive property damage.

What Is a Single-Vehicle Accident?

By definition, single-vehicle accidents involve just one car, truck, or other type of motor vehicle. Typical examples include:

  • the driver hits an object on or along the side of the road (like a guardrail or a tree)
  • the driver swerves to avoid another vehicle, a pedestrian, an animal, a road hazard, or something else, and runs off the road or
  • the vehicle rolls over, spins out, or leaves the road, due to the driver's loss of control of the vehicle or some other cause.

As with any other kind of car accident, the things you do in the immediate aftermath of the crash (and in the days following) will play a crucial part in any insurance claim or legal action you decide to pursue. Learn more about what to do after a car accident.

Liability (Fault) In a Single Car Accident

Single-car accidents are also no different than other traffic accidents in the sense that there's always an underlying cause. It's certainly true that the driver is often found at fault for the accident, but there are plenty of scenarios in which blame for a single-vehicle accident lies elsewhere.

If You're At Fault for a Single-Vehicle Accident

If it's determined that you were to blame for your single car accident, you might still be able to make a car insurance claim, if you have certain kinds of coverage as part of your policy. For example:

And beyond car insurance, don't forget that your own health insurance coverage will pay for treatment of any car accident injuries you sustain in a single-vehicle accident.

Of course, certain kinds of losses (or "damages") won't be recoverable under any kind of insurance policy, including compensation for your non-economic losses (i.e. physical or mental pain and suffering).

Finally, note that if you're found at fault for your single-car accident and you end up making a claim under your own car insurance policy, you might see your rates go up.

It's important to keep in mind that just because you're alone in your vehicle at the scene of your accident, that doesn't mean:

  • you were the only driver (or person) involved
  • yours was the only vehicle involved, or
  • the accident scene tells the complete story of how your crash happened.

When Is the Driver in a Single Vehicle Accident Not Liable?

Let's look at a couple of examples of when a driver in a single-vehicle accident might not be negligent in connection with the crash, and therefore might avoid liability.

Avoiding an Accident With a Negligent/Reckless Driver

If your single-vehicle accident was a result of you trying to avoid a more serious collision with a negligent or reckless driver, obviously the crash shouldn't be deemed your fault.

Let's say Driver A is proceeding north on a two-lane highway. Driver B is headed south. Driver A is texting, and drifts into the southbound lane. Driver B swerves to avoid a collision and ends up crashing. In this case, there was no collision, so Driver B was technically involved in a single-vehicle accident. But the accident was not Driver B's fault. Driver A's distracted driving was the cause of the crash.

Of course, the challenges here include identifying Driver A and finding out whether they're insured.

Unreasonably Unsafe Road Conditions

If the road on which you were driving was in an unsafe condition, if there was a hazard on the road that should have been removed, or if some other maintenance-related issue caused or contributed to your single-vehicle accident, you might be able to make a claim against the local municipality or other organization charged with upkeep of the roads and highways in the area.

But keep in mind that claiming that bad road conditions caused a car accident is usually an uphill battle. If the road conditions were truly that bad, then a sound counter-argument will usually be made: the driver should have been driving more slowly or carefully, given the conditions. But if the driver can make a credible argument—a huge pothole appeared out of nowhere due to known instability in that part of the roadway—there might be a chance to avoid liability for a single-car accident.

Vehicle Defect

A driver might be able to escape liability for a single-vehicle accident if a vehicle defect or equipment failure played a part in causing the crash. The key here is that the defect or failure must be sudden and unexpected. If the vehicle was subject to a recall notice, or if a known mechanical issue was allowed to get worse, then a reasonable (non-negligent) driver would have gotten the car fixed instead of driving it around (or so the manufacturer's argument will go).

How to Defend Yourself in a Single-Vehicle Accident

Why does a fault finding matter after a car accident? If a car insurance company's investigation determines that the negligence of the driver is the sole cause of a single-vehicle accident, that driver's options for recovering anything at all are seriously limited.

For example, if the driver only has liability car insurance coverage, that kind of coverage only pays for car accident injuries and property damage incurred by others in a crash caused by the insured. It won't cover any of the driver's own injuries or vehicle damage if they're the cause of their own single-vehicle accident.

If you're involved in a single-vehicle accident, but you're confident that the crash was not your fault, you must gather evidence as soon as possible. Report the accident to your car insurance carrier. If there were any witnesses to what happened, get their contact information. If you crashed due to bad road conditions, take pictures of the scene as soon as possible. Promptly report the problem to the governmental authority in charge of the road, and perhaps even make a claim against that entity.

If you think you crashed due to a vehicle defect or mechanical failure, get the car checked out immediately. Do not drive the car away from the accident scene. Have the vehicle towed to a qualified mechanic as soon as possible, and have a thorough inspection done.

Getting a Lawyer's Help After a Single Car Accident

Especially if you've been seriously injured after a single-car accident, you might need help disputing a fault finding and building your case to prove that blame for your accident lies elsewhere. Having a skilled legal professional on your side can make a huge difference. Learn more about when to hire a car accident lawyer.

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