Even the best drivers can find themselves on the wrong side of a car accident in an instant. Accidents are often the result of a brief distraction, sometimes by both drivers, and unfortunately that momentary loss of attention can lead to serious injuries and property damage. While the primary concern should always be to ensure the health and safety of everyone involved, one of the first thoughts to cross your mind after an accident will inevitably involve whose fault it was. Like most legal questions, the answer to this one begins with “it depends.”
There are some cut-and-dry rules that apply when it comes to traffic accidents, but even the most black-and-white issues can be turned upside down when the driver with the right-of-way is under the influence, excessively drowsy, recklessly aggressive, or distracted by their cell phone.
If there is a personal injury claim from the accident, the court will need to assign fault to determine how much compensation each party is entitled to. Fault (also referred to as negligence in a personal injury claim) generally refers to a person’s or entity’s failure to act with reasonable care to protect others from harm. In an auto accident, fault is usually placed with the driver who failed to operate their vehicle safely and obey the applicable traffic laws.
You may be surprised to learn that in many accidents, both drivers share a portion of the responsibility. In fact, if both cars were moving prior to the accident, it’s safe to assume that both drivers will end up with some responsibility. That said, the responsible portion may be as minimal as 1%, and there are certainly cases where you can end up with 0% responsibility.
In cases where both parties share responsibility for the accident, the question isn’t just who was at fault, but who has a greater share of responsibility for the accident. The answer to that question will determine who is primarily at fault for the accident, and subsequently who is responsible for the resulting property damage and injuries.
Determining the Right of Way
When both of the cars involved in an accident were moving, one of the most important questions that police officers and insurance agents will be asking is who had the right-of-way? The answer to this question hinges on the applicable traffic laws. The driver with the right-of-way usually won’t be at fault for the accident, though he or she may end up with a portion of responsibility. Again, the issue isn’t who was responsible, but who had primary responsibility for the accident.
How to Determine Fault for a Changing-lanes Accident
Generally speaking, a vehicle that enters a lane of traffic is at fault for any accidents that result from their entrance into that lane. Similarly, when a driver merges lanes and causes a car accident, the merging vehicle is usually at fault for the accident. This is because the driver who is changing lanes has an obligation to ensure he or she can safely do so before merging lanes. So, whether the vehicle in question was entering the roadway, exiting the roadway, or simply traveling along the roadway, it’s safe to say that the merging vehicle will typically be at fault.
Investigators will also look at whether or not the merging driver properly used their turn signal. Failure to signal before changing lanes doesn’t always result in a citation in every state, but it’s an important piece of evidence when determining a driver’s negligence.
As we discussed previously, it’s possible for both drivers to share some responsibility for the accident. Under certain conditions, it’s also possible for both drivers to be found at fault for the accident. Following are some common examples of situations where both drivers can be held at fault for the accident:
- If both vehicles attempt to merge lanes simultaneously (referred to as sideswiping), each driver is assigned 50% fault for the accident
- If the location of each vehicle involved in a sideswipe is indeterminable, each driver is assigned 50% fault for the accident
When only one of the cars is changing lanes, the car that’s already in that lane may be partially liable for the accident due to unlawful behavior. In such cases, the actual percentage of fault applied to each driver will vary depending on the situation. Some examples of unlawful behaviors that could impact assigning fault for the accident include:
- Driving excessively fast for the road conditions
- Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs
- Failure to turn on headlights at night
- Intentionally making reckless maneuvers to prevent the other car from merging
- Suddenly speeding up or slowing down as the other vehicle changes lanes
- Texting while driving
Awarding Damages and Compensation
In a personal injury case, a driver who is assigned 50% fault for the accident or less is eligible to recover damages. However, the total amount of compensation that the driver can recover will be reduced according to the level of fault. For example, a driver who is found to be 25% at fault for an accident can recover 75% of the total compensation they’re eligible to receive, while a driver who has no responsibility for the accident and is 0% at fault can recover 100% of eligible compensation.
The Importance of the Police Report
If you are involved in an auto accident—even a minor one—it’s essential to call the police so that an officer or highway patrolman can fill out an official police report for the accident. The police report for an accident is a critical document that you can use as evidence in your personal injury claim against the other driver.
Even if you don’t file a personal injury claim, the insurance company will need the official police report to assign fault for the accident. Without this, you’re left with a he said / she said argument that’s difficult to substantiate in court.
When the police officer or highway patrolman arrives to fill out the police report, you should refrain from assigning yourself any blame for the accident, even if you are positive it was your fault. Let the authorities and insurance agents do their job to investigate the accident and assign percentages of responsibility for the accident. At the same time, if the other driver violated any laws or exhibited questionable behavior, you should mention these to the officer and include them in the official police report.
Call Personal Injury Attorney Jared Everton at (480) 467-4392 to discuss your case today.
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