Liability and Compensation for Rear-End Accidents

In most rear-end car accidents, the trailing driver will usually be at fault for the accident and have to pay damages to the lead driver.

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  • Car accidents occur in a variety of ways. From fender benders, to high-speed head-on collisions, the scenarios are almost endless. But one of the most common kinds of car accidents are those involving rear-end collisions. Generally speaking, the driver who rear-ends the leading car is liable for damages resulting from the accident. Yet there are situations where that's not always the case, such as:

    • when the lead driver's negligence contributed to the accident; and
    • the applicable state law reduces or completely eliminates the lead driver's ability to recover damages from the mostly at-fault trailing driver.

    Let's explore the above situations, how they affect a plaintiff's ability to recover monetary damages after a car accident, and more. (Get the basics on proving fault for a car accident.)

    Establishing Fault for Rear-End Accidents

    The driver of the car that rear-ends a leading vehicle will almost always be at least partially negligent ("negligence" is the legal principle that determines fault for a car accident). This is because every driver has a duty to follow other vehicles at a safe distance that varies depending on vehicle speed, road conditions, and a whole host of other factors.

    But it's possible for the driver of the car that gets rear-ended to also be deemed negligent, including when:

    • the lead driver suddenly goes into reverse
    • the lead car's brake lights do not work properly
    • The lead driver "brake checks" the tailing driver (a brake check is suddenly hitting the brakes for no valid reason)
    • The lead driver continues to operate the lead vehicle without hazard lights or without pulling over despite the vehicle having an obvious problem, like a flat tire or mechanical issue

    In each of these examples, the driver of the car that gets rear-ended would likely be at least partially at fault for the accident. How this negligence affects any monetary damages that are potentially recoverable will depend on how your state handles situations where more than one party is at fault for an accident.

    Car Accidents and the Concept of Negligence

    Negligence is the term used to describe behavior that hurts others and falls below a basic standard of care. Basically, you are negligent if you don't act in a reasonable way, and someone is injured as a result. What constitutes reasonable behavior depends on the circumstances surrounding the accident.

    To prove that a 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 a duty to other drivers on the road to not do something that might cause an accident.

    Second, you must prove the other driver breached this duty. Drivers in rear-end collisions can breach their duty of reasonable care in a number of ways; for example, by failing to:

    • pay attention to the road and look out for hazards
    • stop within a reasonable time
    • drive at a reasonable speed (based not just on posted speed limits but also on road/weather conditions)
    • maintain control of the vehicle
    • yield the right of way
    • use turn signal(s), and
    • follow at a safe distance.

    Third, you must prove the other driver's breach of duty was the cause of the accident. If the defendant was legally drunk, but the accident occurred because the plaintiff ran a red light, then it's possible the plaintiff will lose the case.

    Finally, you must establish that you suffered damages as a result of the accident. This includes car accident injuries and vehicle damage.

    This is fairly simple in theory, especially when it's easy to identify the at-fault driver. But what happens when the negligence of two or more drivers caused the accident?

    Comparative Negligence vs. Contributory Negligence

    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 can't recover anything at all in a lawsuit against Driver B. So if Driver B was 1% at fault for the accident, they get nothing from Driver A, even if Driver A was 99% at fault.

    Comparative Negligence

    Comparative negligence allocates fault between drivers. A driver's liability may lessen, but not necessarily be eliminated, if the other driver is partly at fault for the accident. There are two variations of the comparative negligence system:

    • Pure comparative negligence: Liability gets split according to the percentage of each driver's fault. So, if Driver A is 30% to blame for a car accident, and she has $10,000 in damages, she can only collect $7,000 from Driver B (who was 70% to blame for the accident.)
    • Modified comparative negligence: Liability gets split according to the percentage of fault, to a certain level. Once a plaintiff meets, or exceeds that level, the plaintiff is barred from recovery. That limit is typically 50%. In other words, if a plaintiff is more than 50% at fault for the accident, the plaintiff is barred from recovering anything at all from the other at-fault drivers.

    These shared fault rules will apply in the care event that your car accident lawsuit goes all the way to trial, but insurance adjusters also keep these principles in mind when negotiating a settlement after a car accident.

    Getting Compensation After a Rear-End Accident

    In most rear-end collisions, the driver of the tail vehicle will be legally responsible for paying for the lead driver's monetary damages. The repair costs for the lead vehicle is typically easy to calculate, so many car insurance companies are quick to pay for those costs. But a complication often arises when it comes to paying for the lead driver's medical bills. That's because common personal injuries from rear-end collisions are back and whiplash injuries, which are often hard to quantify, as they don't always show up on diagnostic exams.

    Were You Involved In a Rear-End Collision?

    It might seem like identifying the at-fault driver is obvious after a rear-end crash, but there could be small details that can completely shift the liability picture. Even if fault is no longer in question, how much money the claimant is entitled to might be in dispute, especially if they were partially the cause for the accident. That's why it's important to at least have an initial consultation with a car accident lawyer, whose assistance can be crucial to all phases of the car accident lawsuit process, including proving fault. If there's no lawsuit, a lawyer can ensure a favorable outcome to the car insurance settlement process.

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