Why is the middle car in a 3 car pile up liable for damages?

by Anonymous
(Washington state)

There was a stopped line of traffic at an interstate exit. The last car in the line of stopped vehicles was rear-ended hard, pushing it into the stopped car in front of it. So let's call them:

Rear car (1st to rear-end a car -- large SUV)

Middle car (1st to get hit; got pushed into car in front of it, small car)

Front car (got hit from behind by middle car in 2nd impact - small/medium car)

Rear car (SUV) damage to front of rear vehicle wasn't observed. Vehicles had to move due to danger of more rear-end collisions. Severe damage was sustained by rear of middle car, while the front of it sustained some damage, relatively minor. The car is totaled according to collision repair shop and insurance company.

Front car sustained apparently very little damage to its rear -- cosmetic. Brake lights on middle and front vehicles worked fine. In accident, left brake light of middle car was smashed (as well as hatch, bumper...left fender pushed into tire. Left rear door doesn't close properly...)

A Washington State Trooper came and filed a report, and cited the rear driver. Trooper told middle driver a judge might later issue a citation to them, but if they talk to the judge, such a citation could be dismissed. Indeed, later the middle driver was issued a citation. Dismissal hasn't been requested yet.

Why would the middle vehicle be cited? Who is legally at fault?

Middle driver's insurance company (Allstate) said they will subtract the deductible from the amount they'll pay for the middle driver's totaled car.

If middle driver is not at fault, shouldn't they be paid full valuation of their car? Shouldn't the rear driver's insurance (Geico) pay for the middle driver's car and personal injuries (rather than their own insurance company)? Shouldn't rear driver's Geico insurance pay for damage to front vehicle? If not, why not? Thank you.

Visitor Question:
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ANSWER for "Why is the middle car in a 3 car pile up liable for damages?":

Anonymous (Washington State):

While you don't mention the type of citations issued, from the facts you present the citations were likely for "Following too Closely" as set out in Washington State Revised Code Title 46 - Section 46.61.145 (1), which reads...

"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 vehicles and the traffic upon and the condition of the highway."

It is safe to presume if the rear driver hadn't been following too closely, he or she would not have collided with the vehicle in front, causing the chain reaction collisions.

Of course it can be argued the vehicles in the line of traffic were stopped, or moving slowly, and as a result, the spaces between the vehicles in front of the rear driver were "reasonable and prudent." This may be why the Washington State Trooper told the middle driver his or her citation might be dismissed by a judge.

Unfortunately, when it comes to apportioning fault in a multiple vehicle collision, it is the insurance companies who determine who was at-fault, the degree or percentage of fault, the amounts of compensation to be paid, and to which drivers.

This doesn't mean the drivers involved have to accept the determinations of the insurance companies. If a driver disagrees with the insurance companies determination of fault, etc., the affected driver(s) may file a lawsuit.

If the amount in controversy is $5,000 or less, a driver may file a lawsuit in one of Washington State’s Small Claims Courts.

The above is general information. Laws change frequently, and across jurisdictions. You should get a personalized case evaluation from an attorney licensed in your state. Find a local attorney to give you a free case review here, or call (888) 647-2490.

Best of luck,

Judge Calisi

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