the blame game: how fault is determined after a car accident

At some point in your driving life, there's a possibility that you'll be involved in a car accident. And as you may know from experience, one of the first questions you'll likely have (after making sure everyone is okay) is this: whose fault was it?

Because accidents are, after all, accidental, determining fault can be tricky. We'll break down how fault is determined from an insurer's perspective.

fault in no-fault states and fault-based states

Auto insurance in the majority of states is fault-based. If an accident happens in a fault (aka "tort") state, the at-fault driver's insurer will typically help pay for repairs, medical expenses, and other losses like pain and suffering and lost wages, through that driver's liability coverage.

On the opposite end of the legal spectrum are the states with no-fault insurance laws. Drivers in these states may be required to carry personal injury protection (PIP), known as first party benefits in Pennsylvania. After an accident, each driver's insurance company pays for the insured's medical expenses up to a certain threshold. Property damage remains fault-based, meaning the cost of repairs can still be covered by an at-fault driver's insurer.

legal liability: who pays?

In general, insurance companies determine fault based on the state's legal definition of negligence.

Depending on your state, a few types of negligence may be in play:

Comparative negligence

Some states use a strict form of comparative negligence (or your percentage of fault compared to the other party's). This allows you to seek compensation even if you're deemed only partially at fault. If your state uses comparative negligence, you can seek damages in proportion to your degree of responsibility for the crash.

For example, if a speeding driver rear-ends you after you suddenly changed lanes, it may be determined that both of you bear a degree of fault. If the other driver is found to be 60 percent responsible and you're held 40 percent responsible, you may seek up to 60 percent of the settlement from the other driver's insurer, depending on your state's laws.

Modified comparative negligence

Other states use a modified form of comparative negligence, which limits your ability to file a claim through another driver's insurer. For instance, in Illinois, you can only recoup your losses if you're found to be less than 50 percent at fault for the accident.

Contributory negligence/pure contributory negligence

Pure contributory negligence is an all-or-nothing way of determining fault and who gets to recoup damages. Even if you were just 10 percent at fault in an accident, you wouldn't be compensated for car repairs, injuries, etc. You would need to be completely blameless — for example, your car was struck while legally parked.

determining fault for car insurance settlements

The police report plays a key role in helping insurers figure out what happened. Because the police's official version of what transpired is more reliable than the versions of those involved (which may conflict with one another and reflect personal biases), insurers use the police report to get a clear idea of who erred. In other words, this report can break the my-word-against-yours tie.

Evidence you gather

On top of calling police to the accident scene, the evidence you gather can help your insurer calculate the degree of fault. Take photos and get info from other drivers and witnesses. This will help support your case and give your insurer the info they need.

Avoid admitting fault at the scene

When you're cooperating with the police and exchanging info with the other driver or drivers, avoid admitting fault. State the facts as you see them. The true cause of your accident may be something you're unaware of, like a driver who suddenly slammed on the brakes, causing a chain reaction that led to your accident.

Even if you think you're the faulty driver, let the authorities and your insurer reach that conclusion objectively.

how fault can impact your car insurance rates

If the investigation finds that you were the driver at fault, your insurance rates won't automatically rise. Your insurer may look at a number of factors, including your previous driving record and the circumstances that caused the accident, before deciding whether your rate will increase. If it does go up, the best way to bring it back down is to start a new chapter of safe, accident-free driving.

If you have any questions on how fault is determined in your state or if you want to check on your claim, give us a call at 1-800-ESURANCE (1-800-378-7262).

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