Who’s at Fault? Using Police Reports and Traffic Laws to Win Your Accident Claim

Police reports and traffic tickets can prove who’s at fault for your damages. Here’s how traffic laws can help settle your car accident claim.

Millions of car accident claims are filed every year in the United States. One thing they all have in common is that a driver was negligent.

If you’re in an accident, you expect the at-fault driver or their auto insurance company to compensate you for your damages. But insurance companies don’t just hand over their money.

It may be perfectly clear to you that the other driver caused the crash, but you have the burden of proof to convince the claims adjuster who’s at fault.

Police reports and traffic citations are powerful evidence that can help you meet your burden of proof. Learn how to use these tools to show who’s at fault and to win a larger settlement.

Working with Police at the Scene

When you’ve been in a motor vehicle accident, immediately check for injuries and call 911.

In busy jurisdictions, an officer might not be available to respond to minor fender-benders with no reported injuries. Police are dispatched to accidents with injuries, disabled vehicles, where traffic is blocked, or there are dangers like leaking fuel or downed power lines.

While waiting for emergency responders, pay attention to what’s going on around you. You can provide valuable information to help the officer’s investigation by reporting your observations.

Look and listen for:

  • How many occupants are in the other car, if they switch seats or anyone leaves the scene
  • Statements from driver or occupants of the other car, such as “I really screwed up this time” or “I told you to slow down!”
  • Anything being tossed out of the other car, including paper bags, bottles, or anything else that could be evidence of drugs or alcohol
  • Attitudes and behavior of the driver, like arguing, cursing, stumbling or other erratic actions
  • If the vehicle or any debris from the accident is moved

Police officers are trained experts in accident scene management and investigation. The responding officer is authorized to:

  • Block traffic and secure the accident scene
  • Coordinate with emergency medical services
  • Gather evidence and determine fault
  • Conduct sobriety tests
  • Issue citations
  • Make arrests

You’ll have the chance to tell your side of the story to the officer. If the officer tells you to wait or stand over to the side, just bide your time.

When the officer is ready to speak with you, explain exactly what happened before, during, and after the crash. Include what you saw, heard, and smelled, such as:

  • The other driver was traveling so fast, you didn’t have time to get out of the way
  • You saw the other driver using a cell phone
  • The other car came into your lane of travel
  • You only heard the screeching tires just before impact
  • The other driver came to your car after the crash, and you smelled alcohol
  • The other car didn’t have headlights on, or wipers running in the rain
  • You had the green light
  • You were driving carefully at the posted speed limit

Be as detailed as possible, but don’t say anything like “I’m so sorry this happened.” Your kindness and sympathy might be construed as an admission of fault.

Return to the Scene for Additional Evidence

Police officers are trained to investigate accidents, but they aren’t infallible. So much is going on at an accident scene, occasionally something is missed.

It’s always a good idea for you to return to the scene of the accident within a day or two, if possible. Don’t wait too long, since traffic scenes can change. Rain can wash away evidence, and other cars can leave skid marks that confuse the scene.

Take a hard look all around to see if you can find any evidence of a traffic violation. It could be a bent stop sign hidden behind a tree, or a yield sign the officers failed to notice.

Take as many photographs as you safely can, from different angles. Write down what you’ve found, and how the evidence shows the other driver violated traffic laws. You can use that information as additional leverage in negotiations.

How Police Reports and Traffic Laws Help Your Claim

Circumstantial and direct evidence are the two main types of evidence used in auto insurance claims and injury lawsuits.

Winning cases must prove an at-fault driver was negligent, meaning they did something wrong or failed to do what any reasonable driver would do in the same situation. When you begin to put together more and more evidence, you start building a solid case.

Circumstantial Evidence: Circumstantial evidence can be just about any set of circumstances that suggest wrongdoing. The claims adjuster or court jury would infer or conclude from the evidence that the other driver was at fault.

Empty beer cans in the car would be circumstantial evidence that the driver had been drinking. Other examples of circumstantial evidence include skid marks, the behavior of the driver, locations of the vehicles after the crash, and more.

Direct Evidence: Direct evidence states a fact without any inferences. A medical report showing the driver’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level over the legal limit immediately after an accident is direct evidence of drunk driving.

Other examples of direct evidence include traffic cam footage, a vehicle‘s “black box” data of speed and braking activity, and eyewitness testimony.

Direct evidence can be much stronger than circumstantial evidence, so you often need less of it to build a solid case.

Police reports and traffic citations may be used as direct evidence to identify who’s at fault for a motor vehicle accident.

How to Read a Police Report

Each state has its version of a police accident report or “crash report.” As soon as possible after a collision, request a copy of the police report. The report could be the most important piece of evidence in your settlement negotiations. Police reports are usually available within a week or two of the accident.

Most police accident reports can be ordered online for a small fee. If you need help requesting an accident report, contact the state or local law enforcement agency that handled your accident investigation.

Be sure you get a final copy of the report. In accidents involving fatalities, or pending drug or alcohol testing from the hospital, the crash report will be amended to include vital information as it becomes available.

Review the police report carefully. The report will contain several important facts, like driver names and insurance company, as well as the officer’s opinion on who was at fault for the crash.

Most police accident reports include key information such as:

  • The date, time, and location of the crash
  • Weather, visibility, and road conditions at the scene
  • Make, model, year and VIN of the vehicles involved
  • Driver contact and insurance information
  • Passenger information, including which car they were in and where they were seated
  • Short description of injuries to drivers and passengers
  • Driver alcohol levels
  • Witness names and information
  • Statements from drivers, passengers, and witnesses
  • Description and location of damage to each vehicle
  • Drawn diagram of the accident and where the vehicles ended up
  • Traffic citations issued
  • Officer’s opinion of fault and cause of the crash

The officer’s written opinion on how the accident happened and who’s at fault may be in a section of the report titled Contributing Factors.

Contributing factors can include bad weather, a blown tire, defective brake failure, or any number of unexpected, intervening events.

The most often cited contributing factors are violations of the state’s traffic laws, which are documented when the officer on the scene issues one or more traffic citations.

Car accidents are often caused when a negligent driver breaks a traffic law.

Using Traffic Laws in Settlement Negotiations

By the time you first speak with the claims adjuster, they will have already investigated the accident and talked to their insured. The adjuster may know their insured caused the collision but won’t admit that to you. Claims adjusters are experts at finding ways not to pay a victim a fair settlement amount.

If you’ve recovered from minor injuries and didn’t miss much work, you can probably settle your claim on your own, without the help of an attorney.

You’ll be in a stronger negotiating position if the at-fault driver was ticketed for a moving violation.

Police officers receive continuing legal education to stay up to date with auto accident reconstruction, evaluation of contributing factors in accidents, and updated state traffic laws.

A police officer issues a traffic ticket only after a thorough investigation of the collision, and the factors directly or indirectly leading to it. The accident investigation includes:

  • Interviewing drivers and witnesses
  • Noting the position of the vehicles at the time of the collision
  • Evaluating traffic conditions, weather, skid marks, property damage, and more

In many cases, car accidents are caused by one driver’s violation of one or more of the state’s traffic laws. It’s common for the officer to issue a citation to that driver.

You can learn more about the specific laws the police officer cited by looking up your state’s traffic laws online, at your county courthouse, or your local public library.

Your knowledge of the traffic citations issued, and the laws that were violated, sends two clear messages to the claims adjuster:

  1. You won’t accept attempts to downplay the citation’s relevance in the collision, nor the citation’s weight in proving who’s at fault
  2. If the claim turns into a lawsuit, you’d call on the police officer to testify that the at-fault driver’s traffic violation was the exclusive cause of the accident

When You Need an Attorney to Fight for You

If you suffered severe or potentially permanent injuries in a car accident, you’ll need the help of a skilled personal injury attorney to get anywhere near the full value of your injury claim.

Insurance companies are notorious for offering lower settlements to victims who aren’t represented by an attorney. Severe injuries are high-dollar claims. The adjuster knows when they make their “final offer” you probably won’t have the energy to fight for more money.

Don’t settle for less. Call an experienced attorney when you have serious injuries, the adjuster is trying to pin some of the blame on you, or just won’t come off a lowball settlement offer.

Most reputable attorneys don’t charge for their initial consultation. There’s no obligation, and it costs nothing to find out what a good attorney can do for you.

Video: Using Traffic Citations to Win Settlements

Using Traffic Laws Questions & Answers

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>