How to Tell Who Is at Fault in a Car Accident

From police officers to insurance claims adjusters and court juries, there are many players in determining the fault in an auto accident.

Auto accidents happen in a flash, but the consequences can last a lifetime. Those consequences have to be paid for by someone.

In most car accident cases, “someone” means the at-fault driver’s insurance company. It is thus important to establish who caused the accident and how.

From the moment a car accident happens to the time a jury renders its verdict in a personal injury lawsuit, lots of people will appear to be at fault. Everyone involved in the case will be looking for different reasons for fault. They probably won’t see the facts in the exact same way.

You need to understand who will be determining fault, why, and what that means for you.

In the worst-case scenario, you can be liable for another driver’s injuries and on the hook for a large judgment. Even if you live in a no-fault state and have a minor accident, that accident can still impact your finances in the form of higher insurance premiums.

No matter where you drive, the question of fault will appear. You need to have a good answer.

This article will look at the various people who determine automobile accident fault. This includes law enforcement officers, insurance claims adjusters, and juries. In some lawsuits, judges may even make fault determinations without the aid of a jury. We’ll go over how each of these people investigates and makes a decision.

Once we understand how each person makes a decision about fault, we can begin to see how we should drive. This makes us safer.

But in the case of an accident, there is another benefit. Safe behavior also makes it more likely that fault investigators will see the accident from your perspective.

How Police Tell Who Is at Fault: Reports

police officer using his laptop inside a car

In most car accidents the first people who will see the accident (other than the people involved) will be law enforcement. These officers have two main jobs.

First, they will ensure the safety of everyone involved in the accident. This can include making sure that people are out of harm’s way or that medical services are on their way.

The other main job of law enforcement officers at the scene of an accident is collecting information for the police report. A police report collects information about each of the parties to an accident and their vehicles. It also summarizes what the police determined happened during the accident, including who was at fault.

Writing the police report is a great responsibility, and officers take it seriously. As a result, law enforcement officers are trained to write clear and accurate reports. They take into account the evidence at the scene of the accident, as well as the perspectives of the people involved.

After laying out the facts, the police report will typically draw a conclusion about which driver was at fault and why. Of course, every accident is different. The factors pointing to fault will be unique to each motor vehicle accident case.

Factors that can influence the police report conclusions: 

  • One or more drivers were intoxicated
  • One or more drivers were speeding or engaging in reckless driving
  • One or more drivers were distracted (e.g., texting while driving)
  • The accident was one to which the law assigns a presumption of fault

What is a presumption of fault?

In legal terms, a presumption is a legal inference made when certain facts are present. For example, in the event of a rear-end collision, many state laws require a presumption that the driver of the rear car was at fault.

Presumptions can sometimes be rebuttable. This means that evidence can be introduced in court showing that the presumption of fault does not apply in this case. Some presumptions are conclusive, meaning that they cannot be changed.

Once the police officers have made their determination, parties to an accident can then use the report to show fault. Both insurance companies and courts will use the report for this purpose.

Though a police report’s finding of fault is helpful, it’s not the only factor for an insurance adjuster, judge, or juror. Each of these people will have to make their own evaluations, and those are also important.

Auto Insurance Company Investigations

man looking at his car while holding a tablet

After the accident, the car insurance companies must receive notification. Insurance adjusters will be interested in the police report. But they also have a motive to make their own determination of fault.

Insurance companies will be looking for facts showing that their insured driver was not at fault. They may also be looking for other reasons to refuse payment. If there is any ambiguity in the evidence, then it is in the insurer’s best interest to possibly come to different conclusions.

As with police reports, insurance company reports also rely on the collection of evidence. Often, insurance adjusters will take statements from drivers about what happened. They will look at the evidence of injuries, medical expenses, property damage, and evaluations of vehicle damage from auto repair shops.

Warning! Think twice about giving a recorded statement to an insurance adjuster.

Insurance companies have a monetary reason for wanting to see the facts in a certain way. The adjuster for the other company will try to use any statement you make against you. They may try to make it look like you are either lying or actually at fault for the accident.

Even the adjuster for your own insurance company may be trying to find reasons to deny your claim. Before you give any recorded statement to any insurance adjuster, it may be wise to discuss the matter with a qualified attorney in your state.

Making a solid showing for insurance adjusters is helpful in a different way than getting a favorable police report. While the police report helps establish the objective reality of the accident, an insurance adjuster’s determination is oriented more towards whether you should be compensated and how much that compensation should be.

Favorable evaluations by insurance adjusters, then, can be key to getting better settlements both in and out of court. In order to make the biggest impact on this part of the process, you should speak with an attorney who has specific knowledge of the insurance evaluation process.

Lawsuits: Conclusive Fault Determinations

woman with her hand on top of a Bible

In the event that you cannot reach a settlement with an insurance company, you may have to file a lawsuit.

While most personal injury cases will be jury trials, there may be limited circumstances where you want a bench trial or summary determination in front of a judge instead.

Speak to an attorney before deciding to submit your case for decision without a jury.

No matter what kind of trial you have, the judge or jury will make determinations regarding fault that are legally binding. In other words, at the end of the case, a judgment will be issued. Among other things, the judgment will make specific findings regarding fault and perhaps award damages based on those findings.

A judgment is a public document that is not only a final determination of liability between the parties, it also has evidentiary value against them. In other words, once a judgment is on the books, its facts are legally proven and in the public record. Although it can be possible to change these with an appeal, this is a difficult and expensive process.

Like the police, a judge or jury will be concerned with finding the objective truth of the situation and will consider the police report, photographs, and other evidence from the accident. They will also want testimony from you, the other driver, and medical expert witnesses. They may even take into account testimony from accident reconstruction experts.

Generally speaking, the court’s investigation is both the broadest and most consequential. Therefore, it may even result in a settlement before judgment is reached. Many car accidents are settled before trial.

Make Sure the Truth Comes Out

We like to think that facts are hard, unmistakable things. The truth is that facts can look very different based on who is doing the investigation. The investigation’s purpose can also shape its result. This is so even if the people investigating are trying their best to do a good job.

When the question is, “Who is responsible for an injury?”, it’s critical that the investigators get it right. If you or a loved one has been involved in a car accident, don’t delay. Speak to a qualified car accident lawyer in your state for a free consultation and case evaluation.

Matthew Carter, Esq. has been a licensed attorney since 2004. He’s admitted to practice law in California and Nevada, where he was awarded the Martindale.com rating of AV – Preeminent. Matthew has successfully handled a variety of personal injury and wrongful death cases, as well as trials, appeals, and evidentiary hearings throughout state and federal... Read More >>

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