At-Fault Accidents: Driver Liability for Car Accidents

When you're at fault for a car accident, the consequences depend on where you live (in a "fault" or "no-fault" state) and the details of your car insurance policy.

By , Attorney · Wayne State University Law School
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

If you're in a car accident, you'll probably start hearing the word "fault" a lot. The other driver might say you're to blame (at fault) for the accident as soon as it happens. And your insurance adjuster will be talking about it too. Fault matters because when you're at fault for an accident, you (or, more likely, your insurance company) will have to pay compensation ("damages," in the language of the law) to others who are injured.

We'll explain what fault is, why it's important, things you should do (and not do) after an accident if you think you might be at fault, and much more.

What Does "Fault" Mean?

When you're "at fault" for a car accident, it means you're to blame (liable, or responsible) for the accident. When it comes to car accident insurance claims and personal injury lawsuits, the at-fault driver is the one who drove negligently (carelessly). Examples of driver negligence include:

  • speeding
  • failing to maintain equipment (brakes, for example)
  • rear-ending another car
  • driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol (DUI)
  • driving on the wrong side of the road
  • violating a pedestrian's right of way, and
  • texting while driving.

Why Is Fault Important?

In most states, if you're at fault for an accident, you (or your insurance company if you have liability insurance) will have to pay for the losses of the other drivers, passengers, and anyone else who was harmed. Losses might include things like car repairs, medical bills, lost income, and pain and suffering. (About a dozen states are "no-fault" states or follow a hybrid system. See below.)

In some cases, you might not be the only driver at fault. In shared blame situations, your state might use "comparative negligence" to assign a percentage of fault to the drivers involved in the accident. Each driver collects damages equal to the other driver's percentage of fault. In a few states with "contributory negligence" laws, you get nothing if you're found even 1% at fault for an accident.

The issue of fault will come up when you talk to an insurance adjuster after an accident, during car accident settlement negotiations, and in court if you or the other driver files a car accident lawsuit.

Do's and Don't's at the Accident Scene and Beyond

If you're in an accident and are concerned that you might be at fault, here are some things you should do—and things you should avoid doing—at the scene and beyond.

Don't Admit Fault

The key "don't" is: Don't tell anyone—the other driver, anyone in the other car, the police, or anyone else—that the accident was your fault. Even if you really believe that it was your fault, you don't have all the necessary information in the moments after an accident, and it's a hectic time.

When you're talking to other drivers, passengers, or bystanders, don't get into any discussion of who might have been at fault. Don't say "I'm sorry" or make any statements that might be construed as an admission of fault. Don't argue with the other driver. Remain polite and cordial. If things start to get heated, just walk away and wait for the police to arrive.

Do Call the Police

Many states require that police be notified if a car accident causes bodily injury or property damage that exceeds $500 or $1,000. Don't take a chance. If you, the other driver, or any of the passengers in either car complains of injury, call the police. If you can see visible damage to either car that is more than a ding, call the police.

Do Take Photographs

Use the camera in your phone to take as many pictures of the accident scene and the damage to both vehicles as you can. If there are skid marks or crash debris on the road, take pictures of them as well. You should also take pictures of stop signs, speed limit signs in the area, and other traffic control devices.

Do Get Names of Witnesses

Make sure to get the names of any passengers in the other car, as well as the driver. If there were any witnesses in other cars or at the scene, try to get their names and contact information, too.

Do Be Honest with the Police

If the police respond, they'll ask you what happened. You'll have some time to wait before they arrive. Make sure to take that time to review in your mind how you believe the accident happened. Then, when the police ask, you can tell them what you think happened accurately and honestly.

Do Call Your Insurance Company

Make sure to call your auto insurance company to report the accident as soon as possible—within a day or two of the accident, unless you can't because of your injuries. In that event, ask someone to contact the insurance company for you.

Your insurance policy has a requirement that you cooperate with the insurance company. Among other things, this means you must report an accident as quickly as possible after it happens. If you don't cooperate, the insurance company might try to deny coverage for the accident.

Do File an Accident Report with the Proper State Agency

Many states require drivers to file an accident report, in addition to calling the police, if they get into a car accident that causes bodily injury or a certain amount of property damage. Some states require that the report be filed with the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). In other states, the report must be filed with the local police department.

If you can't figure out whether your state requires you to file an accident report, ask your insurance agent or your local police. You can probably get a copy of the report form at the police station or online at your DMV website.

Proving Fault for a Car Accident

When it's time to prove fault (or dispute fault) for a car accident, insurance adjusters and lawyers typically look at the rules of the road—traffic laws—and evidence, like:

To prove that you were at fault, the other driver must start by showing that you were negligent. Negligence simply means that you didn't drive as carefully as you should have under the circumstances. When your negligence causes others to suffer injuries or property damage, you're at fault. Learn more about car accidents caused by negligence and how to prove driver negligence.

What Losses Will My Insurance Cover If I'm at Fault?

What your auto insurance covers depends on (among other things) the state where you live and the kinds of insurance coverage you carry.

You live in a fault-based state. If you live in a fault-based state and you're responsible for an accident, your liability insurance will pay, up to the limits of your coverage, for the personal injuries and property damage you cause others. Damages like medical bills, lost wages, other out-of-pocket losses, and pain and suffering will be covered. In most states, liability insurance is required by law.

The damages to your car will be paid for by your collision coverage, if you have it.

You live in a no-fault state. If you live in one of the dozen or so no-fault states, you'll turn to your own personal injury protection (PIP) insurance to pay your medical bills and lost wages after a crash, regardless of who was at fault. PIP typically only insures personal injuries, so your collision coverage (again, if you have it) will pay to repair or replace your damaged property.

Will My Insurance Rates Go Up If I'm at Fault for an Accident?

If you're found at-fault for an accident, your car insurance rates will almost certainly go up when it's time to renew your policy. According to a Forbes Advisor's analysis published in 2021, the national average rate increase was 41% for drivers with a clean record who caused an accident.

The seriousness of the accident and the amount your insurer paid out affects your rates. For example, a parking lot accident probably won't raise your rates as much as a T-bone accident causing serious injuries.

You'll typically be stuck with higher insurance rates for three to five years, depending on where you live and your insurance company. Some states and insurers reduce your rate for each year you drive without a traffic violation or accident. To lower your rate after an accident, try to:

  • shop around
  • ask for a discount, and
  • take a defensive driving class.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you think you might be at-fault for an accident, talk to a car accident lawyer. A lawyer can help you settle your case or defend you in court against a lawsuit. If you have auto insurance, your insurance company should provide you with a lawyer. If you're not insured, you'll have to find an attorney on your own.

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