Your Guide To Car Accident Fault & Liability: Everything You Need To Know About Proving Who Is At Fault In A Crash

Fault & Liability In A Crash (And Why It Matters)

The following guide will outline the basics of what you need to know to determine fault in a traffic accident. So why does knowing fault matter so much?

In a car accident, liability often follows fault, and determines who will be made to pay for damages or injuries - and how much. As such, proving fault is a very high stakes game for all parties involved from the drivers involved to the insurance companies on the hook as well as the accident attorneys in the court fighting for their clients.

When a driver was careless, disregards the safety of others, or failed to follow the traffic rules which results in a collision it can be pretty black and white as to the cause of a crash.

Unfortunately, it's not always so simple, and state driving laws can complicate the matter further - imagine a rear-end collision when the person hit was intoxicated.

The motor vehicle statutes state by state thrown into the mix complicate matters further forcing the consideration of issues like proximate cause, statutory negligence, partial fault, and contributory and comparative negligence. Each of these legal issues will be explained in more detail with examples in a moment.


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Continue reading to learn what you need to know about how the law looks at determining accountability.

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Common Law: The Four Basic Levels of Fault

Most of the legal rules surrounding personal injury cases are built upon common law and how it defines tort. In the common law definition of fault, a motorist who causes the accident has committed a tort. Not necessarily a crime, tort is defined as when a person commits an act resulting in the loss or private harm (a civil wrong action) and common law (which can and does differ from state to state) recognizes four basic levels of fault.

Common Law: Four Levels of Fault.

  • Negligence
  • Recklessness or wanton conduct
  • Intentional misconduct
  • Strict liability (regardless of fault)

Negligence: Occurs when a defendant fails to take proper care in performing some action which results in harm or damage. Examples include: failing to yield when driving resulting in a crash or running a red light or motorists who run a red light with their vehicle.

Recklessness or wanton conduct: Irresponsible behavior which results in the harm of another breaches the legal duties one has to conduct themselves in a responsible manner. A willful disregard for the safety and welfare of others. Such conduct breaches the legal duty of care we are all obligated to. For example: Erratic driving, speeding, running red lights, and other wild driver behavior would be considered a failure to drive in a reasonably responsible manner. Torts which results from such careless conduct, while tragic, are still considered accidents generally.

Intentional misconduct: Actions such as drunk driving leading to an accident would fall under the definition of intentional misconduct.

Strict Liability (regardless of fault): Most commonly in defective product cause injuries, strict liability refers to fault without consideration of intent. In other words, the plaintiff need only prove the alleged tort occurred as a direct result of the product in question. For example, if your being hit was the fault of the other driver but a defective traffic light caused the driver to turn and caused the accident.

Determining fault in general negligence accidents can become complicated quickly, as you can see. Ultimately, fault is either determined by common law or created by statutory violation.

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Statutory Violations: The Presumption of Negligence

Fault can also be defined by statutory violation in addition to the elements defined by common law. In cases where state legislatures have created formal rules for the matter in question, the formal legislation can define fault. The following will explain how statutory violations work.

When a motorist is in violation of any of the codified rules state governments have enacted to define how public roads are to be used, there is a presumption of negligence. The presumption of negligence means that the motorist who violated a statute is presumed to have caused the crash in question and is responsible for proving this negligent act was not the proximate cause of injuries suffered.

The concept of presumed negligence is very important for determining fault and resulting liability in an auto accident.

Proximate Cause: The action or event that most closely caused an injury determined by the courts to be the legal cause. For example: In the event a motorist who fails to wear a seatbelt and suffers a traumatic brain injury after being rear-ended. Both drivers may be considered negligent, the motorist who was hit presumably failed to follow seatbelt law while the other driver failed to operate the vehicle with enough safe distance to stop before a collision.

Cause-in-Fact ('But For'): A cause determined by a direct action, which would not have occurred but for the action in question. Meaning: if the event would not have happened 'but for' the preceding action. In legal terms it needs to pass the 'but for' test. Example: But for running a four-way stop, the crash would not have happened.

Both are used to help determine who or what is culpable after an accident. When injuries are involved,

Contributory Negligence: Some states consider contributory negligence when determining culpability. It is defined as when a party's own negligence while not being the primary cause is considered to have contributed to the tort in question. Think of it as a percentage of fault for injury liability being assigned to the injured party. For example: Not wearing a seatbelt can be considered to have contributed to the severity of sustained injuries in an automobile accident. Contributory negligence is generally assigned on a percentage basis by the court and declares the percentage of responsibility for any injuries sustained by the plaintiff / defendant.

Continue reading to learn more about how accountability is shared amongst involved parties in schemes recognized in some states..

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Comparative Fault vs. Pure Contributory Negligence Rule

Not all states recognize comparative fault or the pure contributory negligence rule. At the time of this writing, only four states and D.C. recognize pure contributory negligence rule and thirteen states pure comparatavie fault rule.

States have many different methods of allocating fault to a cause of action. To complicate matters further, methods of applying culpability may or may not be applied to different types of negligence claims. For example: the rules one state uses to apply legal responsibility may apply to negligence in a car crash claim and not in a product liability case. The best personal injury attorneys know in evaluating claims that determining legal fault and by extension liability can get complicated fast.

Comparative Fault: Generally, states that recognize comparative fault weigh the percentage of responsibility both parties have in an accident. The degree of negligence which contributed to the cause of injury is taken into account and can impact the damages a plaintiff may be awarded - and by extension the damages a defendant may be held liable for.

It follows that a legal system which recognizes comparative fault in determining financial culpability then needs a system defining how such comparisons are to be used and the impact they have on damage recovery. Three basic types are used:

Pure Contributory Negligence: Known as proportionate responsibility, pure contributory negligence when recognized prevents recovery for any damages if the plaintiff is even 1% at fault. In the four states which recognize this system (and the District of Columbia), if motorist negligence is found to have contributed to causing accident, even the damaged party is only found to be 5% at fault, they are not entitled to recovery. There are exceptions, notably if the damaged party can prove willful & reckless on behalf of the defendant or that a clear chance was available to avoid the crash which the defendant failed to take.

Pure Comparative Fault: In this scenario, damaged parties are entitled to the recovery of damages even if it is established they are partially to blame, but the amount is reduced proportionally based on the degree of fault. States which recognize pure comparative fault include: Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Washington.

Modified Comparative Fault: This system consists of two methods of dealing with accountability, the 50% Bar Rule, and the 51% Bar Rule. The rules represent the established benchmark, or cut-off point for assigned fault, at which a damaged party may be able to recover damages. In states recognizing the 50% Bar Rule, plaintiffs who are established to be at fault to a degree of 50% or greater are not entitled to recover damages. While 51% Bar Rule states prevent recovery for damaged parties who are 51% or higher found to be at fault in an accident.

This is a very basic explanation of the different approaches to the impact the degree of fault can have on a claim and how it is handled. How states handle responsibility and subsequent recovery options can vary and your legal counsel will be able to help unravel how the rules are likely applied to your situation in the event of a claim.

Ultimately, all this work to determine precise measurements of fault in the event of an accident is to one purpose - determining who is accountable to pay for recovery. When damages can climb into the millions of dollars, the stakes are high.

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Insurance Liability: Who Pays?

In the event of an accident, determining legal responsibility takes on great significance as the parties involved fight to be made whole. Motor vehicle collisions usually involve insurance companies seeking to limit their liability and as a result what they may be obligated to pay.

Determining the degree of responsibility all the involved parties in a collision have can swing the size of settlements and recovery significantly. Insurers have a clear interest to manage accountability where legally possible. Matters complicate further still if the crash involves un-insured drivers or under-insured drivers which we cover in more detail elsewhere as the issue is a complex topic of its own.

While the insurers are often on the hook after an accident involves a covered policy holder, accountability isn't always restricted to motorists. City governments can be found responsible for unsafe roadway conditions contributing to an accident. For example, a number of railway crossing accidents have been attributed to broken safety lights or blocked warning signs or other similar contributing factors which the city failed to take reasonable care to remedy. In such cases the city can be found at fault and therefor liable for damages.

No-Fault Insurance: Under this system insurance providers will pay regardless of fault in an accident. This is limited to certain types of damages (personal injury, property damage, etc.) and up to a limit. Generally, drivers are required to have Personal Injury Protection (PIP) in no-fault states, and in the event of an accident you would file a claim against your own insurer regardless of fault. The following states are considered "No-Fault" states: Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Utah.

We deep dive into how "No Fault" insurance works and the variances in application state by state in more detail in a separate guide explaining insurance matters after an accident in more detail.

Important Resources Defining The Rules

Important Laws Which Can Play A Role In Accident Cases

Here are additional resources for reviewing everything from traffic statutes, state courts, and the tort claim process.

  • Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)
  • Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI)
  • Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA)
  • State Laws & Regulations Affecting Highway-Rail Crossings: Federal Railroad Administration (DOT)
  • U.S. Code Civil Remedy For Personal Injuries (GPO)
  • Tort Litigation: U.S. Attorneys Manual (DOJ)

State by State Court & Law Offices: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida (Torts), Florida (Negligence), Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan,, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming

State laws are always subject to change.


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