Who is at Fault in a Car Accident When Backing Up?

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There’s a lot going on in a parking lot—you have cars pulling into spaces, backing out of spaces, driving through the lanes, and often driving hazardously with no regard to the lines or other cars. Factor in one-way lanes, cramped parking spaces, unusual traffic flow patterns, unique layouts, and a sea of pedestrians, and it’s no surprise that so many accidents happen when you’re backing out of a parking space.

How to Determine Who is at Fault

When any accident occurs (not just backing up in parking lots), there are two factors that primarily determine who is at fault. These are often the first questions that police officers and insurance adjusters ask (other than asking if everyone is ok, of course). The two important questions are:

Was the Car Moving?

This one is a no-brainer. When only one car is moving, the driver of the moving vehicle is typically at fault for the accident. Things can get a little grey when the stationary car is illegally parked on a public roadway, but on private property (most parking are private property, by the way) those white and yellow parking lines are just guidelines, not rules. Even if you back into a car that’s double-parked in two spaces, or that’s extending out into the lane, the driver of the moving car will likely be at fault.

Which Driver had the Right-of-Way?

When both cars involved in the accident are moving, only one car has the right-of-way based on the traffic pattern. And while parking spaces may just be guidelines, any clearly marked traffic lanes are enforceable. In most cases, whichever driver doesn’t have the right-of-way is at fault for the accident. That said, a vehicle that’s driving recklessly, too fast, or fails to yield may trump the right-of-way rules and be at fault for the accident.

Examples of Common Parking Lot Accidents

Determining who has the right-of-way in a parking lot accident can be challenging. It’s not like a public road where there are street lights, stop signs, and speed limits. The insurance agent will need to consider multiple factors such as the traffic flow, the speed of both cars, and any potential failure to yield. In many cases, both vehicles (and by extension, both drivers) may be partially responsible for the accident. In those cases, the question isn’t who is responsible, but rather who is primarily at fault for the accident.

Following is a brief discussion of five of the most common types of parking lot accidents and who is typically viewed as at fault. These examples aren’t necessarily the rules of the road and are certainly up for interpretation based on the actual circumstances, but they’re a good representation of how an insurance company will assess who is at fault in a parking lot accident.

A Car Backs into the Lane of Traffic

Since both vehicles are moving, both drivers share some responsibility for the accident. However, the vehicle in the traffic lane technically has the right-of-way, and the vehicle that’s backing out is required to wait until it’s safe to back out of the parking space. Unless the vehicle in the lane was driving excessively fast or recklessly, the driver who is backing out of the parking space is primarily at fault.

A Car Pulls Forward into the Lane of Traffic

Again, both cars are moving here, so each driver shares some responsibility for the accident. Similarly, the vehicle in the traffic lane has the natural right-of-way, so the driver pulling out of the space is primarily at fault unless the other vehicle is driving recklessly, speeding, or fails to yield.

Two Cars Back into Each Other (Both Backing-Up)

This might be the most common type of accident in a parking lot. Since both vehicles are moving, both drivers share responsibility. To make matters even more puzzling, neither driver has the right-of-way, as each is responsible for checking to make sure the coast is clear before backing up the car. This might be surprising, but in such cases both drivers will likely share fault equally for the accident.

Two Cars Competing for a Parking Space Collide

We’ve all seen what happens when two drivers rush to get the last parking space in the lot. It turns into an expensive game of chicken, and when neither car yields it ends in an easily avoidable accident. Because both cars are moving, both drivers retain some responsibility. So, who is at fault? When a vehicle makes a turn across traffic, the driver is required to yield to oncoming traffic (ARS 28-772). In this case, the vehicle turning left into the parking space failed to yield, so that driver is primarily at fault for the accident.

A Car is Rear-Ended at a Stop Sign

Accidents involving a vehicle that’s rear-ended at a stop sign are open-and-shut cases. Only one car is moving, so the vehicle that rear-ends the car in front is at fault. While speed and reckless driving may be important factors in the other examples, they rarely effect determination of fault in cases like this. Even if the vehicle in front slammed on the breaks and stopped abruptly, the rear vehicle should have provided a safe distance between the cars to stop and avoid a collision. It’s safe to say that in this type of parking lot accident, the vehicle in the rear will always be at fault.

Potential Exceptions to the Rules

When both vehicles involved in the accident were moving, determining who had the right-of-way is usually the first step. After that, the insurance agent will likely consider three factors that could potentially assign fault beyond who had the right-of-way:

    • The car was driving recklessly – if the driver with the right-of-way was weaving through traffic or driving against clearly posted traffic signs, he or she could be assigned a greater level of responsibility for the accident. They may not be primarily at fault, but they could share fault 50/50 with the other driver who didn’t have the right-of-way.
    • The car was speeding – speeding and reckless driving often go hand in hand. Even if the parking lot doesn’t have any posted speed limits, a driver who is moving unreasonably fast may be at fault despite having the right-of-way.
    • The car failed to yield – when you’re backing out of a parking space, there’s a point where you’ve backed far enough into the lane of traffic that other drivers will need to yield to you. Similarly, if your vehicle has entered a parking space, other drivers will need to yield and allow you to take that parking space. In such situations, you now have the right-of-way, not the other vehicles in the lane of traffic.

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