How to Determine Fault in a Rear-End Collision: Is Liability Automatic?

The driver of the last car in a rear-end accident is usually at fault, but not always. Here’s how to prove fault and liability in a rear-end collision.

In most rear-end car accidents, the driver of the last car is assumed to be at fault. But you can bet the rear driver’s insurance company will try to shift some of the blame to the front driver.

Good evidence will help prove the rear driver was at fault and validate the scope of injuries.

After an auto accident, you expect compensation for your property damage and personal injuries. Knowing what to do and the pitfalls to avoid will pave the way for a successful insurance claim. This guide can help you prove who is at fault and get the compensation you deserve.

Finding Fault in Rear-End Collisions

Most of the time, the driver of the last car in a rear-end accident is determined to be at fault.

The Last Vehicle in Rear-End Crash

Because a rear driver can’t easily judge the exact distance between their car and the one in front, 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 they must stop suddenly, they will have at least two seconds to react before hitting the car in front of them.

In most rear-end collisions, the negligent driver was not maintaining a safe distance. It’s almost impossible for anyone to prove they were following at a safe distance and still managed to crash into the car in front of them.

Most court decisions find that if you hit the car in front, you weren’t maintaining a reasonable or prudent distance behind the lead driver.

Insurance companies know they can’t get away with denying your claim if you were rear-ended, so they will look for other reasons to reduce your claim. For example, they may argue that your brake lights were malfunctioning or you made a sudden lane change.

Never assume that simply because it’s a rear-end crash, the insurance company will agree that the driver in back is 100 percent at-fault.

When the Insurance Company Blames You

Most of the time, the driver who rear-ends another car is fully liable for the accident. The only thing to hash out with their insurance company is the value of your personal injury claim.

However, there are times when the insurance company might say you are at least partly to blame for the crash, even though their insured rear-ended you. For example, if your tail lights weren’t working, and the driver behind you didn’t see you had stopped.

If you’re in this situation, talk to a car accident lawyer. Don’t rely on the insurance adjuster’s opinion of your fault.

Most states have modified comparative negligence laws, meaning you can pursue compensation from the other driver even if you were partly to blame for the accident. Compensation is reduced in proportion to your share of the blame. In many cases, an attorney can help prove that you have no responsibility for the crash.

There are a few exceptions to automatic rear-end liability, such as:

  • If the driver in front was driving erratically or recklessly, making it impossible for the rear driver to avoid a collision, even from a safe distance behind
  • If the driver in front suddenly stops in the lane of traffic and fails to give any other reasonable notice to the driver behind
  • If the driver behind is traveling a safe distance and at a safe speed, but fog, snow, rain, or other inclement weather conditions make it impossible to stop
  • If a driver behind is traveling at a safe distance and speed behind the vehicle in front, but a third vehicle strikes the driver from behind, pushing the second car into the first car

Proving Your Rear-End Accident Claim

It may seem obvious to you that the driver who hit you from behind caused the accident. But don’t just sit back and wait for the money to roll in. The insurance adjuster doesn’t earn a year-end bonus by automatically handing out fat settlement checks.

All drivers have a legal duty of care to drive safely. This means drivers must follow local traffic laws, maintain a proper lookout for other drivers and pedestrians, and keep their cars in working order.

When a driver violates their duty of care, it’s often due to their negligence. A rear-end collision can happen when someone stops paying attention, drives recklessly, or has a brake failure from neglecting to have the brake fluid checked. These are all negligent actions.

It’s up to you to prove the other driver’s negligence and the extent of your damages. You’ll need to prove you were injured, the injuries were directly caused by the accident, and prove the costs related to those injuries.

To meet your burden of proof, you must gather as much evidence as possible. The more evidence you have, the better your chances are. Let’s look at some of the best evidence for a rear-end auto accident claim.

Evidence at the Scene

Always call 911 when you’re involved in a traffic accident. Tell the dispatcher your location, if anyone is injured, and if there are traffic problems or dangers at the scene. In busy jurisdictions, police may not respond to minor, non-injury fender-benders. But it’s still important to show you contacted police.

If you’re physically able, gather evidence while waiting for police:

  • Photographs: Use your phone to take photos and video. Start with pictures of your vehicle, the rear vehicle, and the surrounding area. Take as many pictures, from as many angles as you safely can.  Take close-ups and wide shots to include traffic signs, stoplights, and other information in context with the accident.
  • Witness statements: Write down the names and contact information of anyone who saw the accident. If you find willing witnesses, have them write down everything they saw and heard. Ask them to sign and date their written statement.

Continue to Collect Evidence

  • Detailed Notes: After the accident, make detailed notes about what happened before, during, and after you were rear-ended. Be sure to include anything the other driver may have said to you. Statements like “My brakes weren’t working,” or “I was on my cell phone,” are considered admissions against interest and are strong evidence of negligence.
  • Police Report: If the police respond to the accident, an officer will investigate the accident and prepare an official police accident report. The report will indicate the investigating officer’s opinion of fault for the crash, list any citations issued to the other driver, and if the other driver was arrested for DUI.
  • Medical Records: Your medical bills and records are crucial evidence proving the rear-end collision injured you, and how badly.

Causes of Rear-End Vehicle Crashes

You can be the most careful driver on the road, but it’s almost impossible to avoid a collision that comes from behind.

Exceeding the Speed Limit: A driver who is speeding reduces the amount of time they have to react when the car in front has stopped in traffic.

Tailgating: Almost every state has traffic laws that require drivers to “follow at a safe distance.” Safe drivers should allow at least three seconds for stopping if the front vehicle should stop suddenly. More stopping time should be allowed for bad weather, bad road conditions, or poor visibility.

Distracted Driving: Texting, eating, putting on makeup, listening to loud music, talking with passengers, looking into the back seat to check on young children, and looking away from the road are frequent causes of rear-end accidents.

DUI: Drugs and alcohol significantly compromise a driver’s reflexes and reaction time. Intoxicated drivers don’t accurately judge distance or speed, and may nod off behind the wheel.

Weather: Rain, snow, slush, ice, high winds, and fog can affect a driver’s ability to see ahead, stop in time, and stay within the lane. Weather conditions can cause multi-car pileups with a chain of cars rear-ending one another.

Sudden Stops: An abrupt stop can contribute to a rear-end collision, but it’s seldom an acceptable reason to put all the blame on the lead driver. Drivers can abruptly stop for many reasons, like to avoid hitting a child or animal, because of road conditions, an accident up ahead, police activity, or construction.

When You Need an Attorney

If you’ve fully recovered from whiplash or other soft-tissue injuries, and there is no question of liability, you can probably settle your claim without the help of an attorney.

If liability is complicated or your claim was denied, you owe it to yourself to talk with an experienced personal injury attorney.

Insurance adjusters are trained to settle complex claims for as little money as possible. They don’t care what it means to you or your family.

Complicated claims include:

There’s too much at stake to handle complicated injury claims on your own. Most car accident attorneys offer a free consultation for accident victims. There’s no cost to find out what a skilled attorney can do for you.

Fault in Rear-End Collisions Questions

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 >>