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 are at fault for an accident, you (or, more likely, your insurance company) will be on the hook for the other driver's expenses ("damages"). In this article, we'll answer all of your questions about fault.
When you are "at fault" for a car accident, you are to blame (liable, responsible) for the accident. When it comes to car accident-related insurance claims and personal injury lawsuits, the at-fault driver is the driver who was negligent. If you did something (or failed to do something) that caused an accident, you are at fault. Examples of driver negligence include:
In most states, if you are at fault for an accident you (or your insurance company if you have liability coverage) will have to pay for the losses of the other driver, passengers, and anyone else harmed by the accident. Losses 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. For example, you might have been making a left turn when a speeding driver coming straight from the other direction plows into you. You were negligent when you failed to yield to oncoming traffic, but the other driver was also negligent for driving too fast. In shared blame situations, your state might use "comparative negligence" to assign a percentage of fault to each driver involved in the accident and each party collects damages equal to their percentage of fault. Or, in a few states with "contributory negligence" laws, you get nothing if you're found even 1% at fault for an accident.
Proving fault for an accident typically starts at the scene of the accident. For practical tips on how to protect your legal and financial interests when you could be found at fault for an accident, check out: When You're 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.
When it's time to prove fault (or dispute fault) for a car accident, insurance adjusters (and lawyers if you get dragged into court) typically look at the rules of the road (traffic laws) and evidence, like:
To prove fault, adjusters and lawyers have to prove negligence. Negligence is careless conduct that causes harm to another person. Learn more about car accidents caused by negligence and how to prove driver negligence.
All types of car insurance are meant to cover losses caused by a car accident. But the details of what's covered depend on factors like what state you live in and what policy you've chosen.
Liability (or fault-based) car insurance. If you're found at fault for a crash in which another person is injured, your liability insurance will compensate, up to the limits of your coverage, that person's medical bills related to their car accident injuries, financial harm (lost wages, diminished earning capacity), and "general damages" like pain and suffering. Liability coverage (or some other proof of financial responsibility) is mandatory in most states. Your own damages will be covered by your collision coverage.
No-fault insurance (PIP). In the dozen or so no-fault states, drivers turn to their own PIP insurance to pay medical bills and other injury-related losses after a crash, regardless of who was at fault. PIP typically doesn't cover car repairs and other property damage, so drivers in no-fault states often purchase collision coverage in addition to PIP.
If you are 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 is 41% for drivers with a clean record who cause 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 what state you live in 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:
If you think you might be at-fault for an accident, you should talk to a car accident lawyer. A lawyer can help you settle your settle your case or defend you in court against a lawsuit. Your car insurance company might provide you with a lawyer. Or use Nolo's directory of auto accident lawyers to talk to a lawyer today.