How is Fault Determined in Car Accidents?

Car accidents happen every day on streets and highways throughout California. The California Highway Patrol reported that in a single year, more than 223,000 people were injured and an additional 3,104 people died due to traffic accidents in our state.

The injuries from collisions can be severe and often leave victims facing extensive medical debt, lost income from missing work, and even permanent disabilities. Families who lose a loved one are not only left with grief, but often with lost financial contribution and support to the household. Fortunately, there are options for car accident victims in California to hold the driver who was at fault responsible for their losses.

In order to find other drivers liable, however, you must first determine and prove that they were actually at fault in the accident. Because there is often a substantial amount of money on the line, pointing fingers will not be enough and you often need to present sufficient evidence of fault. There are many different car accident fault rules that must be followed in these legal determinations; in addition, different parties may determine fault in different ways. Because determining fault in a California car accident can be complicated, it is important to have an experienced personal injury lawyer handling your case and assisting with your financial recovery.

The Role of Police in Identifying Fault

After an accident, it is always wise to remain on the scene until law enforcement officers arrive. This is especially important if you believe the other driver was responsible for the accident. The officers should interview everyone involved in the accident and any witnesses in an attempt to compile the most accurate account of what happened.

The officers then put that account into their official report, which may or may not include their professional opinion of who was at fault in the accident. Even if a police report does include a statement regarding fault, this statement is not necessarily determinative for purposes of legal responsibility. Though the police report does not mandate who was at fault, it can be persuasive for insurance companies and courts when deciding fault.

In addition, if police officers believe that one driver violated the law, they can issue a citation, conduct further investigation, or even arrest the driver. For example, if the driver appears to be intoxicated, the police can perform roadside sobriety tests, breath tests, or blood tests to obtain more concrete evidence that the driver was unlawfully driving under the influence (DUI).

If a driver is cited or charged with a crime, this can serve as important evidence of fault that is difficult to challenge. For these reasons, police can play an important role in determining who is at fault in a car accident.

What determines fault other than a police report?

A very common question is, “What determines fault, other than the police report?” And it’s a very important question.

The police report gets it right about 80% of the time. But twenty percent of the time the police report gets it completely wrong. One of the most common instances in which the police report gets it wrong is when the person who is injured is not able to speak for himself–or herself–because they’ve been taken away in an ambulance, or even more tragically, that they’re deceased at the scene. So, many times the police officer will only get the version of the other person and put that in the police report as what happened.

If you get yourself a top flight law firm, they’re going to have their own investigators, their own accident reconstruction experts, people who can measure skid marks, people who can determine what happened from the damage to the vehicles. And, people who can go out independently, talk to the other officers on the scene, talk to the fire personnel, the ambulance personnel, and witnesses who are not mentioned in the police report.

And, there are those times when the police report is completely wrong, and one of the nice things about the contingency fee nature of personal injury lawyers is it costs you nothing. If we spend a lot of time and money and discover that the police report was right and the person who came to us as a client was at fault, that person owes us nothing.

On the other hand, if we find there is a case when the police report said there was no case, that’s what goes in front of the jury at trial. Because, the police report does not go in front of the jury. The theory being, the policeman was not there at the time, he didn’t see it, he’s only reporting his opinion.

Seeking an Insurance Settlement from the At-fault Driver

In California, if you believe another driver was at fault in your accident, you can seek a settlement from that driver’s insurance company. However, the insurance company will not simply agree to a settlement. Instead, it will investigate to ensure its policyholder was actually to blame. This investigation can include physically examining the scene of the accident and the vehicles involved, interviewing the parties involved in the collision, and more. Some factors insurance investigators will use to determine fault can include:

  • One or more drivers admitting all or a certain degree of fault;
  • Police reports and any traffic violations cited;
  • Location of vehicle damage;
  • Signs of negligence on the part of either driver (discussed further below).

Often, if fault is not clear, an insurer may attempt to avoid liability by claiming its policyholder was not at fault and therefore refusing to compensate you for your losses. In addition, the insurer may claim you are also partially at fault in order to substantially decrease the amount of your settlement offer. If an insurance company does not make the correct fault determination or if its settlement offer is inadequate to cover your losses, it may be necessary to file a lawsuit against the other driver in California civil court.

Car Accident Fault in a Lawsuit

Every car accident case revolves around the legal concept of “negligence.” A party can be found liable for your accident-related losses if the court finds the accident occurred due to that party’s negligence. Parties that can be negligent in car accident cases can include other drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians, car manufacturers, government entities, and more.

Negligence occurs when a party fails to act with the degree of reasonable care that is legally expected of them under the specific circumstances. For instance, every driver has the legal duty to operate his or her vehicle in a reasonably safe manner to prevent injuries to others. If a driver acts in an unsafe manner and causes injury, he or she can be found to be negligent and, as a result, at fault in the car accident. There are many different forms of negligence that can lead to traffic-related crashes, some of which include the following:

  • DUI – This can include driving under the influence of drugs, driving over the legal limit of 0.08 percent blood alcohol content (“BAC”), or driving while under the legal limit if there are signs of impaired judgment.
  • Distracted driving – The most common form of distracted driving in recent times is texting or otherwise using a smartphone. Yet many other activities can cause dangerous distractions including eating or drinking, taking care of children in the back seat, personal grooming, and more.
  • Aggressive driving – Everyone knows California traffic can be frustrating. However, when impatience turns into aggression, it can lead to dangerous behaviors including tailgating, excessive speeding, cutting off other vehicles, or threatening other drivers.
  • Violating traffic laws – The California Vehicle Code has hundreds of laws that can be violated, leading to accidents. Common violations including speeding, running red lights, failure to signal, and failure to yield.
  • Defective auto parts – If a car manufacturer sells a vehicle or vehicle components that are defective, a malfunction can lead to a car accident and the manufacturer may be found at fault. Parts that are commonly defective include brakes, tires, and airbags.
  • Dangerous roads – Government entities have a duty to keep the roads safe through inspection, maintenance, and repair. If potholes or other dangerous road hazards cause an accident, the government could be held liable due to its negligence.

The above are only some of many examples of negligence that can lead to a car accident. If you provide sufficient evidence of the negligence of another party, that party will likely be found at fault for the accident and liable for your injury-related losses. Proving negligence in a lawsuit can be challenging, however, so having a skilled attorney with experience in injury litigation is critical.

What if more than one person is at fault for the accident?

We have many clients ask, “What if there’s more than one person at fault for the accident?” And this arises in two situations. The first situation is where our client has no fault whatsoever but the accident is the fault of two people rather than one.

In a recent case that we have, a negligent driver ran into a telephone pole and the telephone pole fell across the road. A second negligent driver was speeding, trying to avoid the telephone pole that had fallen across the road, and ran into our client. In that case, both of those people are responsible and both of their insurance companies are on the hook.

The second situation is where both our client and the other person is at fault. If it is, for instance fifty-fifty, it doesn’t mean that our client can’t recover, it only means that they can’t recover as much as they would have recovered if the other person was one-hundred percent at fault. But, we can still make a very nice recovery for someone and take care of their financial needs.

Contact an Experienced California Car Accident Attorney Today

Determining fault in a California car accident can be complicated, however, it is necessary to make such determinations in order to fully recover for your injuries and losses. The team at GJEL Accident Attorneys has extensive experience in successfully representing injured auto accident victims, so please call today at 866-218-3776 for a free consultation.