Figuring out who was at fault in an auto accident, and to what extent can mean the difference of thousands of dollars in damages paid. It's a complicated matter, and can be very difficult to do because there are several factors affecting that determination. We'll cover below how where you live can affect how fault is determined, and how you can prove someone else's fault (or your innocence) in a car collision.
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Is Your State a Fault or No-Fault State?
In the vast majority of states, for accidents involving two or more drivers, the at-fault driver is the one who would have the liability and the responsibility to pay for damages caused in a car crash. Generally the at-fault driver's bodily injury (BI) liability insurance will be the policy charged with covering the other driver’s medical expenses, and their property damage liability would cover the other driver's car repairs. The extent of this pay out will vary by state because each state has a different philosophy of "negligence" that they adhere to (more below).
On the other hand, there are a number of states that are called "No-Fault" states because of their mandatory requirement of Personal Injury Protection (PIP) insurance. Drivers with PIP in most cases do not have to worry about another driver's insurance because no matter who was at fault in the accident, each driver's PIP will pay for their own medical expenses. A PIP policy bypasses needing to file a claim through another driver's insurance--usually saving time and energy. The downside of PIP policies however are their relative costliness. Below you can see which states are fault and no-fault states. It should be noted, even if a state is not a mandatory PIP state, you can still acquire PIP insurance as an optional coverage.
The Three Types of Negligence
Essentially negligence is a synonym for fault. If you are negligent in a car accident, you are at fault. There are three types of negligence: pure contributory, pure comparative and modified comparative fault. Even if you do have a PIP policy, the nature of an accident may make it so you exhaust the coverage of the policy. Exhausting your PIP may force you to claim under the other driver's BI insurance. Depending on which form of negligence your state adheres too, this process can be wildly different.
Pure Contributory Negligence
Arguably the most draconian of the three, pure contributory negligence basically states that a driver can only recoup damage costs if they were 0% at fault. Even if it can somehow be determined an accident was 1% a driver’s fault, that 1% will prevent them from getting any pay out from the other driver. For example, say you were driving in North Carolina and got rear-ended by another driver, causing damage worth $1,000. Ordinarily with this type of collision it is easy to point fault, but say, you were speeding to beat a yellow light, and at the last second you decided to stop for the red light. Technically, nothing illegal was done on your part, but if it can be proven that your sudden stop was a factor in the other driver rear ending you, you can be found partially at fault. Even if a hearing deems you 10% at-fault, you will not see a single dollar of the $1,000 in damage from the other driver. Perhaps fortunately, only four states plus the District of Columbia adhere to this type of negligence.
Important to note: none of these states are mandatory PIP states. Considering the rarity of accidents in which no driver is somewhat at fault, it may be in a driver’s best interest to have some PIP protection in these states.
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Pure Comparative Negligence
Perhaps the most accommodating of the three, pure comparative negligence allows drivers to recoup damage losses in proportion to how at fault they were in an accident. If you were driving in New York, and got into a $1,000 collision in which it was deemed you were 75% at fault, you could file a claim for up to 25%, or $250, of the settlement from the other driver’s insurance. An obvious pitfall of this however is determining the exact percent a person is at fault. Currently there are 12 states that adhere to this negligence type, three of which are “no fault” states.
Modified Pure Comparative Negligence
The middle ground, as well as the most common negligence system in the United States, is modified pure comparative. Essentially, it follows the proportionality of comparative negligence, but sets a threshold like contributory negligence. The threshold fortunately in this case is not the strict 0%, but rather 50% or 51%, depending on the state. Thus if you were involved in a $1,000 collision in Georgia or Colorado for example, and it was determined you were 45% at fault and the other driver 55%, then you can recoup 55%, 0r $550, of the settlement from the other driver. If the situation was reversed however, and you were found 55% at fault, you would be entitled to nothing. 33 states follow the modified pure comparative negligence model, 11 have a 50% threshold, while 22 have the 51% threshold. South Dakota has a similar system called “slight/gross negligence”, which does away with exact numbers and says an at-fault driver cannot get a pay out unless they are “slightly negligent”.
How is Fault Determined in a Car Crash?
You may be wondering, how do any of these systems work when it comes to actually deciding the percentage someone is at fault. The answer is of course, not simple. Proving someone was at fault, not to mention proving the exact amount they were at fault, is hard to do with just anecdotal evidence. Proving fault will not only save you or cost you money in a claim, but will also affect your auto insurance rates in the future. Insurance companies generally use accidents in which you are at least 50% at-fault to determine your quotes, and you can be sure most of them will increase your rates. There are luckily official capacities that can boost your credibility, and prove your innocence or another driver's fault.
If the police were involved in your collision, they would have filed an official report. Within that report is an officer’s objective analysis of the situation, something drivers in the accident may be too shaken up for in the moment. The officer's notes could contain an opinion on whether a specific traffic violation was broken, or whether drugs or alcohol played a role, and they may even specify who they think was at fault.
This will require some of your own investigation. A simple glance into your state’s highway manual can reveal some specific traffic laws that may just lift some of the blame off of you in an accident. This info can mostly be found on the Internet, or your local DMV or even some public libraries.
Many traffic laws seem intuitive, but are in fact very specific. If your car crashed into a biker, it may seem completely your fault, but there may just be a specification that may have required the biker to be further away, or be wearing a certain type of clothing. Whatever it may be, if the claim is $1,000, and they are claiming 100% your fault, those laws may be enough to lower your blame to 80%, saving you $200.
“No-Doubt About It” Accidents
There are a couple types of accidents that are difficult to argue who was at fault. One such accident is a “rear end collision”. Highway laws generally say that a driver needs to maintain a safe stopping distance. Rear-ending someone is generally presumed to be a violation of that law, giving the person who was struck a legal reason to prove the other person's fault.
Even so, while the majority of rear end collisions assign fault to the rear driver, there are instances where fault will not be 100%. If the front driver has a broken tail light, was distracted, or doing something like in our North Carolina example above, the rear driver can point out those factors, thus causing fault to dip from 100%. If you are in a Pure Contributory state like North Carolina or Alabama, this can be the difference between $1,000 and $0.
Another claim that is hard to fight is a “left turn accident.” This happens when a driver making a left turn collides with a driver coming straight in the opposite direction. Rules of the road dictate that a driver waiting to make a left hand turn must wait until traffic is clear, making this a very hard accident to prove your innocence if you are the left turning driver. Some exceptions will of course exist; the other driver was going over the speed limit, or they blew a red light. For the most part, this accident will always go in favor of the straight driver, however.
Each state may have its own definitions for fault, but its importance across the country cannot be understated. Knowing ways to prove your innocence can mean the differences of hundreds if not thousands of dollars in car accidents. If you are in an accident, you should familiarize yourself with your states negligence policy as well as its traffic laws. As well, if your confident after an accident that you were at minimal fault, bringing in an officer to make a police report can go a long way in proving your innocence to your insurance.