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