Figuring out who is at fault in a traffic accident is usually a matter of deciding who was careless (or "negligent" in legalese). And, for vehicle accidents, there is a set of official written rules telling people how they are supposed to drive and providing guidelines by which liability may be measured. These rules of the road are the traffic laws everyone must learn to pass the driver's license test. Complete rules are contained in each state's vehicle code, and they apply not only to automobiles but also to motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians.
Sometimes a violation of one of these traffic rules is obvious and was clearly the cause of an accident—for example, when one driver runs a stop sign and crashes into another.
In other situations, whether or not there was a violation will be less obvious—a common example is a crash that occurs when drivers both merge into a single lane of traffic. These cases are usually governed by the law of negligence. A driver, pedestrian, or cyclist who is "negligent" (that is, behaved in a thoughtless or careless manner) will be found at least partially at fault for causing the accident.
To prove negligence, four elements must be met: (1) the driver is legally required to be reasonably careful in the particular situation (this one is a given since drivers must use caution at all times); (2) the driver (or pedestrian or cyclist) was not reasonably careful; and (3) the driver's conduct caused actual injury or damage to someone. (Learn more about car accidents caused by negligence.)
If someone hits you from behind, the accident is virtually always that driver's fault, regardless of the reason you stopped. A basic rule of the road requires that a driver be able to stop safely if a vehicle stops ahead of the driver. A tailing driver who cannot stop in time to avoid a rear-end accident is not driving safely.
The other near-certainty in rear-end accident claims is that the vehicle damage proves how the accident happened. If the other car's front end and your car's rear end are both damaged, there can be no doubt that you were struck from the rear.
There might be a chain reaction accident where both you and the car behind you were hit when a third car ran into the car behind you and pushed it into the rear of your car. In that case, it's usually the driver of the third car who is at fault and against whose liability car insurance you would file a claim. For a step-by-step guide to protecting your legal rights after an accident, see How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim by Joseph Matthews (Nolo).
A driver making a left turn is almost always liable to a car coming straight in the other direction. Exceptions to this near-automatic liability can occur if:
Whatever the contributing factors, the law says the car making the left turn must wait until it can safely complete the turn before moving in front of oncoming traffic. Also, the location of the damage on the cars sometimes makes it difficult for the other driver to argue that the accident happened in some way other than during a left turn. So, if you have had an accident in which you ran into someone who was making a left turn in front of you, almost all other considerations of fault go out the window, and the other driver is nearly always liable.
If an injured person's actions are at least partially to blame for a vehicle accident, compensation for that person's injuries or property damage may be limited or barred completely, depending on where the accident occurred.
In states that use the comparative negligence system, if both parties to an accident are negligent, fault is allocated between the parties. This means that the victim will probably not be able to recover fully for injuries and other losses, but may get partial compensation. In states that follow the contributory negligence system, an injured, at-fault person is barred from any financial recovery at all. Learn more about contributory and comparative negligence.
Whether a helmetless motorcycle rider can recover for head and neck injuries depends on where the motorcycle accident occurred. Nearly all states have some type of motorcycle helmet law. Some states require all motorcycle riders to wear helmets. Others require helmets only for those riders under a certain age. In states with a helmet law, if a helmetless rider sustains injuries in a vehicle accident, it may be difficult to recover for head and neck injuries. However, the rider may be able to recover for other injuries. In states that don't require the use of a helmet, recovery for head and neck injuries may be slightly easier. However, the insurance company is likely to produce a barrage of evidence demonstrating that helmet use drastically reduces the incidence of head injuries, and that by not wearing a helmet, the motorcyclist was negligent.
If you are the victim of a trucking accident, understanding who is responsible for your injuries can be complicated. There is often a web of players that could be liable, and figuring out who they are isn't always easy. Some of the people and companies who could be on the legal hook for a trucking accident include:
To make matters worse, the trucking, hauling, and leasing companies often argue among themselves over whose insurance will compensate the victim. Your best bet in most trucking accidents is to consult an injury lawyer who has experience with these types of cases and knows what to expect from the parties involved. Learn more about common causes of truck accidents.
Bicycles are considered "vehicles" in almost every state's official traffic or vehicle code. This means that cyclists must follow the same rules of the road that apply to cars, trucks, and motorcycles. In an accident between a car and a bicycle, fault is determined by the general principles of negligence. Bicyclists will not normally get a break just because their "vehicle" is smaller and powered by human legs. For example, if a cyclist runs a red light and is hit by a car that entered the intersection legally, the cyclist will most likely be deemed negligent and be unable to recover for their injuries.
Electric scooters can represent a danger for pedestrians, vehicle drivers, and for scooter operators themselves. States (and some cities) differ when it comes to how electric scooters are treated for purposes of traffic laws, liability insurance, helmet laws, and more. A scooter operator or vehicle driver who causes a crash can probably be held financially responsible for any resulting damage or injuries, but the availability of insurance coverage is a big variable when it comes to electric scooters. What about the companies who rent out electric scooters? Some of the bigger players (including Lime and Spin) claim they have no liability for any accidents related to use of their vehicles or services. Learn more about electric scooter accidents and injuries.
When you're riding in an Uber or Lyft vehicle and you're involved in a traffic accident, it's not always obvious who was at fault for the crash, and whose insurance will cover your medical bills and other losses ("damages"). If the rideshare driver is at fault, Uber or Lyft's coverage likely applies to your injuries, but these kinds of cases can raise a number of unique questions. Learn more about rideshare passenger injury claims.
Take notes. The most important thing you can do is to document the entire situation by taking careful notes soon after your accident. This step can help make the entire claim process easier on you—and increase your chances of receiving all the compensation to which you are entitled. Having notes to remind you of all the details of what happened, and what you went through, is far easier and far more accurate than relying on your memory.
Write things down as soon as you can: Begin with what you were doing and where you were going, the people you were with, the time, and the weather. Include every detail of what you saw, heard, and felt. Be sure to add anything you remember hearing anyone—a person involved in the accident or a witness—say about the accident.
Finally, make daily notes of the effects of your injuries. You may suffer pain, discomfort, anxiety, loss of sleep, or other problems which are not as visible or serious as another injury, but for which you should demand additional compensation. (Learn more about taking notes after an accident or injury.)
If your car accident injuries are significant, or the other side is disputing any aspect of your potential claim, it might make sense to discuss your situation with an experienced lawyer. Learn more about how an attorney can help with your car accident claim.