Determining Car Accident Fault When It’s Your Word Against Theirs

You may have heard the adage, “A person is only as good as their word.” Yet a person’s word may not always be as reliable as you might hope. At least when it comes to determining car accident fault. 

Negligent drivers cause car accidents. The resulting injuries, property damage, and legal consequences are often difficult to face. Negligent drivers often lie to avoid being found at-fault for the accident. And witness statements can be conflicting and unreliable. 

So, how exactly do insurance companies or juries determine car accident fault? 

Methods for Determining Car Accident Fault

There are different ways to determine fault in a car accident. And not all are formal. Some common ways of determining car accident fault include: 

  • Between Drivers. Sometimes drivers take responsibility and decide how to allocate fault between them. 
  • Between Insurance Companies. In at-fault states each driver files a claim with the his or her insurance company. The insurance companies will work together to determine fault. Many car accident cases are resolved through the insurance settlement process. 
  • At arbitration. When insurance companies cannot agree on fault they may use an arbitrator. An arbitrator is similar to a judge. The arbitrator will decide fault and her decision is final. 
  • A jury decides. If you cannot reach a settlement with the insurance company it may be necessary to file a lawsuit. When you file a lawsuit, you will go to trial. At trial, at jury will determine car accident fault. 

Not all these options are available or relevant in every state. Determining car accident fault depends on state laws. Before you can move forward with your claim, you need to know whether you live in an at-fault or no-fault state. Moreover, you need to know which theory of negligence your state has adopted. 

Determining car accident fault is complex. Consult with an experienced car accident lawyer in your state to discuss your rights and options. 

At-Fault vs No-Fault Car Accident

Most states operate on a fault based system. This means that the driver deemed at-fault must pay for the damages that he causes. In most cases the at-fault driver’s insurance company will cover the damages. But they will only pay up to the policy limits. 

In these states, the insurance companies will work together to determine fault. If you go to trial, the jury will decide who was at-fault. 

Sixteen states have no-fault car accident insurance laws. This means that drivers pay for insurance to cover their own damages. They carry personal injury protection (PIP) coverage to pay for personal injury claims. This includes medical bills and lost wages related to your injuries. 

But PIP coverage will not cover vehicle damages unless you bought extra coverage. Or you can file a property damage claim with the at-fault driver’s insurance company. This is where determining car accident fault in no-fault states becomes relevant. 

In no-fault states, all parties must file a claim with their own insurance company. 

Drivers in most no-fault states must carry personal injury protection (PIP) coverage. PIP 

How Fault is Determined

Determining car accident fault depends on state laws and the details of the accident. The way that a state defines negligence impacts how fault is determined. Moreover, the facts surrounding the accident play a crucial role in assigning responsibility. 

Remember that in no-fault states negligence does not matter. Determining fault is only necessary when it comes to property damage lawsuits. PIP will cover damages from personal injury claims.

In at-fault states and for certain types of claims in no-fault states, the degree to which you are negligent impacts your recovery. 

The 3 Negligence Standards

The negligence laws for each state fall into one of three theories of negligence: 

  • Comparative negligence
  • Modified comparative negligence 
  • Contributory negligence

Comparative Negligence

In comparative negligence states, you can recover damages if the other party was at-fault. But your damage award may be reduced based on your share of fault. 

For example, suppose you get into a car accident in Alaska. Alaska is a comparative negligence state. You suffer significant injuries and damage to your vehicle. You file a lawsuit against the other driver and her insurance company. 

The jury determines that the other driver was negligent. It also calculates your damages at $150,000. But the jury also finds that you were 30% at-fault for the car accident. Based on the comparative negligence standard, you will receive $105,000. Or 70% of $150,000. 

States that follow a comparative negligence standard include: 

  • Alaska
  • Arizona 
  • California 
  • Florida 
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana 
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Rhode Island 
  • Washington 

Modified Comparative Negligence

Modified comparative negligence is the same as the comparative negligence standard. But there is one important exception. In a modified comparative negligence state, you cannot recoup damages if you are more than 50 or 51% at-fault. The 50 and 51% threshold vary by state. 

Return to the example from above. The facts are the same except that the accident occurs in Colorado. Colorado is a modified comparative negligence state. In Colorado, you would still recover if the jury finds that you were 30% at-fault. Your award would be reduced the same as in Alaska. But suppose instead that the jury finds that you were 65% at-fault. In a modified comparative negligence state, you will not recover any damages. 

The states that follow a modified comparative negligence standard include: 

  • Arkansas
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut 
  • Delaware 
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Main
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • North Dakota
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee 
  • Texas 
  • Utah 
  • Vermont 
  • West Virginia 
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

Contributory Negligence

In contributory negligence states, if you have any fault for the accident, you collect nothing. Let’s return to the example on last time. Suppose that the accident occurs in Alabama. Alabama is a contributory negligence state. The jury finds that you were 10% at-fault for the accident. Even though the other driver is 90% at-fault, you cannot recoup damages. 

States that have adopted contributory negligence are: 

  • Alabama
  • District of Columbia
  • Maryland
  • North Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Virginia 

Accident Details

So, we have looked at the role that state negligence laws play in determining car accident fault. But when it comes to assigning fault, insurance companies and juries look at certain criteria. The following are some of the most important accident details and evidence. 

Police Reports

Police reports are influential in determining car accident fault. Police officers respond to the scene and attempt to document what occurred. They record the roadways that the drivers were traveling in and the conditions. They collect information from the drivers, injured parties, and witnesses. 

The statements that the parties make at the accident scene are particularly important. Acknowledging fault in any way can damage your claim. This is especially true in a contributory negligence state where any share of fault bars recovery. For this reason, say as little as possible at the scene of the accident. 

Once the police officer determines that there is enough information, he or she will submit the report to the department. The report may include a statement about who the officer believes was at-fault. This is based on the officer’s professional judgment. But even if the police report includes such a statement, it does not mean that the decision is final.

A police officer may also issue a traffic citation. A citation also does not determine car accident fault. But it may be used as evidence that the driver cited was negligent.

Witnesses

A police officer will record the contact info for any witnesses to the car accident. The insurance company will reach out to these witnesses to get their statements. If the police are not called, make sure to collect the names and contact info for any witnesses. You can provide the information to the insurance companies. You can also have them testify at trial. 

Evidence from the Scene

The insurance company will review any evidence that you collect from the scene. Evidence usually includes photos, such as pictures of the accident scene and damage to the vehicles. This is why if you get into a car accident it is a good idea to take as many photos as possible. 

Conditions

Driving conditions play a role in determining car accident fault. For example, inclement weather or poor road conditions may have played a role in causing the accident. 

Credibility

Determining car accident fault is in many ways a credibility issue. To determine credibility, insurance companies and juries will look at many factors. The consistency of the statements made about the crash. The parties demeanor, attitude, and plausibility of their statements. 

Your own credibility will play a role. To ensure the best outcome, be honest about the accident. Never misrepresent the incident. You may be unsure how to handle questions from the police or insurance company. Consult with an experienced personal injury attorney for guidance. 

The Impact of Being At-Fault on Insurance Premiums

One of the biggest concerns for those found to be at-fault is the potential for their insurance premiums to increase. Your insurance rates will not automatically rise. Your insurance company will look at many factors before making a determination. For example, your driving record and the circumstances surrounding the accident. 

If your insurance policy has accident forgiveness your rates may not go up at all. If your premiums do increase, there are ways to bring them back down. Maintaining a good driving record is the most important. Another option is to take a defensive driving class. Defensive driving can reduce your premiums by 5 to 10%

Connect with a Car Accident Lawyer Today

Car accidents are traumatic. But the process of determining car accident fault can also be stressful. An experienced personal injury lawyer can represent your interests.  Short of cash? Many personal injury lawyers work on a contingency fee basis. This means that you only pay if you recover damages. Lawsuit Info Center can connect you with an experienced care accident attorney in your area