How Predetermined Fault Impacts Auto Accident Claims and Lawsuits

Text version...

If you've been the victim of a car accident and are thinking about filing a property damage or personal injury claim, you should know about the legal theory of Predetermined Fault, also known as Predetermined Negligence.

Predetermined fault means the other driver's actions were so obviously negligent, that to argue about it would be a waste of everyone's time. In a situation like this, there's no reason to file an auto accident lawsuit, since the driver's insurance company probably won't argue liability. They will, however, argue the amount you demand for compensation.

Reviewing the Circumstances

Predetermined fault is not always obvious. Sometimes the circumstances of the accident must be reviewed to produce evidence of fault. Some of these cases include:

  • Cutting across several lanes of traffic
    Cutting across several lanes of traffic, especially on a busy highway, is an example of probable predetermined fault. This most often occurs when a driver realizes he's about to miss his exit. Instead of waiting until it's clear to drive across several lanes of traffic, he cuts across impulsively, without using his turn signals.

  • Driving while intoxicated
    You can be confident an intoxicated driver will be hard-pressed to find an excuse for causing an accident. Unless the victim's negligence was so strong as to outweigh that of the drunk driver's, an arrest for DUI will be all a victim needs to establish fault.

  • Driving with a suspended or revoked license
    If the at-fault driver had a suspended or revoked license, it can help in your negotiations, especially if the license was suspended for speeding, DUI, or other forms of reckless driving; but, it's not absolute proof of fault. Those past violations can be used to support your claim, but won't guarantee its success.

Rear-end Collisions

The most common example of predetermined fault is a rear-end collision. Because it's virtually impossible for a driver to judge the exact distance of his car behind the one in front of him, most states follow the reasonable and prudent standard:

The driver of a motor vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed of such vehicle, and the traffic upon, and the condition of the roadway."

A reasonable and prudent distance between two cars can be measured in two ways:

  1. The driver behind should maintain a distance of one car length for every 10 miles per hour of speed.

  2. The driver should keep far enough behind the car in front, so that if he has to stop, he'll have at least two seconds to react before hitting the car.

In most rear-end collisions, the at-fault driver was not maintaining a safe distance. It's virtually impossible for a driver to prove he complied with either standard. That's why the majority of courts rule that if you hit a car in front, you weren't maintaining a reasonable or prudent distance behind the other driver.

Of course, there are exceptions to all predetermined fault cases, including rear-end accidents. Never assume that simply because it's a rear-end collision, the driver in back is 100 percent at-fault.

Left-turn Collisions

Another example of predetermined fault is a left-turn collision. When a driver is making a left turn across a lane of oncoming traffic, he must wait until the cars driving in the opposite direction have safely passed. There are few excuses for a driver to turn across a lane of oncoming cars.

In previous auto accident lawsuits, the courts have traditionally held it's the duty of the driver who is preparing to turn to be sure the intersection or oncoming lane is clear of all other vehicles.

Predetermined Fault Does Not Guarantee Liability

It's very difficult for an at-fault driver to overcome liability in a case with predetermined fault. But, the possibility remains that the victim's own contribution to the accident may be enough to lessen the at-fault driver's responsibility.

That doesn't mean predetermined fault is completely eliminated. Instead, it means the at-fault driver can be held less than 100 percent responsible for the collision. The percentage of liability can be decreased in negotiations between the at-fault driver's insurance company and the victim, or in a court verdict after a lawsuit.

Example: Faulty Brake Lights

Jane is driving in front of Derek. They're both traveling in the same direction down a highway. Although Derek isn't tailgating, he's not far enough behind Jane to satisfy either one of the distance rules. Suddenly, Jane slams on her brakes, but her brake lights weren't working. Derek didn't react in time and crashed into the rear of Jane's car.

Who is liable in this scenario?

Derek rear-ended Jane, so he bears the majority of fault for causing the accident. But, since Jane's brake lights were out, she also bears some responsibility... exactly how much will be determined during claim negotiations.

Although rear-end collisions might be considered predetermined fault, in the case of brake lights failing, the at-fault driver's insurance company probably won't agree to 100 percent liability. The company's claims adjuster will want to split the percentage of fault between her insured and the victim.

Example: Turning Through an Intersection

Bill is in the left lane of a two-lane highway, preparing to make a left turn across the oncoming lanes of traffic. There are no traffic lights at the intersection. Bill looks both ways and feels confident all cars have cleared the intersection. He begins his turn across the highway.

Suddenly, another car appears on the highway speeding straight towards him. Bill already committed himself to the turn, and the oncoming driver couldn't avoid crashing into him.

In most left-turn accidents, the turning driver (Bill) would be 100 percent at fault.

In this case, however, Bill established that the second driver was speeding. A reasonable and prudent person could not have anticipated the unsafe speed of the second driver's car. As a result, Bill's liability was lessened by the contributory negligence of the second driver.

Proving Predetermined Fault

In auto accident claims and lawsuits, fault must be proven with evidence. It may seem obvious, but the victim must be able to identify the vehicle that struck him, and must prove the circumstances responsible for the collision.

The insurance claim process is adversarial. And although the other driver's fault may be clear to the victim, the insurance company won't automatically agree with him. The victim must prove fault using the police report, witness testimony, and other evidence.

Using the Police Report

One of the best sources of evidence for establishing fault is a police report. There's usually a separate section of the report called Contributing Factors. The investigating officer uses that section to record factors she believes led to the accident.

Examples of contributing factors include tickets for following too close, failure to yield, and excessive speed. A traffic citation makes it very difficult for the at-fault driver to escape liability.

Police officers are trained to make an unbiased evaluation of auto accidents. They receive continuing legal education in accident reconstruction and identification of contributory factors. Their opinions can make or break an insurance claim.

Insurance claims adjusters know that if they don't settle the claim, it could turn into an auto accident lawsuit. If so, the judge and jury will hear the police officer's evaluation of fault in the accident, based on his investigation. The officer's testimony is almost always accepted and relied upon by the jury when deciding a case.

That's the last thing an insurance adjuster wants. He knows if the police officer testifies, there's an extremely high probability the jury will find the at-fault driver responsible for the accident. There's also a good chance the jury may render a verdict much higher than the amount the victim asked for in the first place.

Print Friendly and PDF

How Much Is Your Claim Worth?

Find out now with a FREE case review from an attorney...

> > Predetermined Fault in Auto Accidents

How Much Are Your
Injuries Worth?

Find out with a
free attorney review: