Establishing Liability in Multi-car Accidents

Establishing fault in a multi-car accident is a complex process. Unlike a two-car collision where fault is easily determined by who ran the red light or who crashed into the back of someone else's car, finding fault in this kind of collision is much more difficult.

Insurance companies can have a tough time determining liability, especially when each driver points his finger at the other. Because of the complexity of issues, many of these cases end up in court. When they do, the courts look to their respective state laws to guide them in determining liability and compensation.

Some states adhere to the contributory negligence rule. In these states, if you're even 1 percent at fault you can't recover a penny. Other states adhere to the comparative negligence rule. In comparative negligence states, the percentage of fault determines the compensation.

If you don't live in a no-fault insurance state and you were in a pile-up, don't wait for your insurance company to come to your aid. You must help yourself.

In collisions like these, he who has the best evidence usually wins. If you have an accident with several other vehicles, you must gather police reports, photographs, witness statements, weather reports, and other evidence inculpating the other drivers, and exculpating yourself. Those are two fancy legal terms for making sure the evidence proves the other guy is responsible, and you're not!

Two main types of negligence apply to these collisions. Because percentages of fault are important, you must understand how the rules of contributory and comparative negligence can affect your claim.

Contributory Negligence

The following states use the contributory negligence rule. The rule states in a single or multi-car accident, if you're even 1 percent at fault, you can't receive compensation from the other driver.

District of Columbia
North Carolina

Example of contributory negligence:

Sally was driving 60 miles per hour down a highway in Alabama. The posted speed limit was 65 miles per hour. Minnie was driving behind Sally. Minnie was momentarily distracted and didn't see Sally slow down. Minnie collided with the rear of Sally's car. The force of impact pushed Sally's car into the car in front of her. When she struck the car in front, her neck and back were twisted. She suffered whiplash and a herniated disk.

It was later determined Sally was traveling approximately 100 feet behind the car in front of her. Unfortunately, under Alabama Motor Vehicle Law Section 32-5A-89:

(a) ...the driver of a vehicle shall leave a distance of at least 20 feet for each 10 miles per hour of speed between the vehicle that he is driving and the vehicle that he is following."

By law, Sally was supposed to drive at least 200 feet behind the car in front of her. Under Alabama's contributory negligence rule, the jury found Sally's failure to keep 200 feet behind the car in front constituted contributory negligence. If Sally were at least 200 feet behind the car in front when Minnie hit her, Sally wouldn't have collided with it. As a result, she wouldn't have suffered any injuries. Sally received no compensation.

Pure Comparative Negligence

The following states use the pure comparative negligence rule. The rule says in a multi-vehicle accident, the amount of compensation is directly proportionate to the driver's percentage of fault. This rule makes determining fault much more complicated than determining fault under the contributory negligence rule.

New Mexico
New York
Rhode Island
South Dakota

Example of pure comparative negligence:

Hank was driving 60 miles per hour down the highway in New York. The posted speed limit was 65 miles per hour. Art was behind Hank and suddenly smacked into Hank's car. The impact of the collision sent Hank's car into Sue's car directly in front of him. All three drivers were injured.

It was later determined Hank was traveling approximately 150 feet behind Sue when he hit her. The New York Vehicle and Traffic Code Section 1129 states:

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

Under the rule of pure comparative negligence, Hank isn't 100 percent liable for striking Sue. The distance he was traveling behind Sue affects the percentage of his liability. Here's where it gets complicated.

Sue accuses Hank and Art of causing the collision. Hank says he isn't at fault because he was a safe distance away from Sue just before the impact. Hank tells Sue's insurance company to seek 100 percent of her damages from Art and not from him. Art's insurance company says they accept responsibility for Art's injuries, but not for Sue's. Art says Hank alone caused Sue's injuries.

It's unlikely the three different insurance companies will settle this case. A jury will decide what Art's percentage of liability is and what percentage is Hank's. The jury will also decide whether the 150-foot distance between Art and Sue's cars was "reasonable and prudent."

If they decide it was, then Art is liable for 100 percent of Sue's and Hank's injuries. If the jury believes the 150-foot distance wasn't reasonable and prudent, they have to decide what percentage of fault to assess against Hank and what percentage to assess against Art.

Modified Comparative Negligence

Thirty-three states rely on the modified comparative negligence rule for multi-car accidents. There are two types of modified comparative negligence. One type is the 50-percent rule and the other the 51-percent rule.

The 50-percent Rule

The 50-percent rule says if you're a driver and you have injuries, and it is later determined you were less than 50-percent liable for causing the accident, you can seek monetary recovery of losses against the driver or drivers who collided with you. If though, it's determined you were 50-percent or more liable for causing the collision, you lose your right to any compensation from any of the other vehicles' drivers.

The following states use the 50-percent rule:

North Dakota
West Virginia

The 51-percent Rule

The 51-percent rule is similar to the 50-percent rule except if you're a driver and you're hurt, you have a right to seek compensation if it's determined your fault was 50 percent or less, rather than the 49 percent or less under the 50-percent rule.

The following states use the 51-percent rule:

New Hampshire
New Jersey
South Carolina

Example of the 50-percent modified comparative negligence rule:

Tory was driving the speed limit down a local road in Maine. While driving, a text from her friend distracted her. Tory took her eyes off the road to answer the text. While she was typing away, Alex's car, directly in front of her, suddenly stopped to avoid hitting a dog that wandered onto the road.

Alex's brake lights weren't working so Tory didn't notice when Alex stopped. Tory collided into the rear of Alex's car. At the same time, Tim's car was directly behind Tory. Tim couldn't stop in time and slammed into Tory's car.

The insurance companies couldn't come to an agreement about liability so the case went to trial. The jury decided Alex's percentage of liability was 50 percent. So, under Maine's 50-percent rule, the court dismissed Alex's lawsuit against Tory. As to the crash between Tory and Tim, the jury found Tory's percentage of liability was 40 percent.

They assessed that percentage because even though Tory wasn't paying attention, and so was partially liable, they also found Tim was following Tory too closely. The jury assessed Tim's liability at 51 percent so the court dismissed Tim's case against Tory. Tory won her case against Tim.

The 51-percent rule

If the same multi-car accident occurred in Wyoming, Alex's case was good. Because the jury assessed his liability at less than 51 percent, he could still recover his losses from Tory in an amount the jury believed equaled 50 percent of his damages. In Tim's case, though, he's out of luck because the jury found his percentage of fault was 51 percent, and the court dismissed the case.

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