Proving Liability in Multi-Car Accidents: Who Pays for Your Damages?

Learn how insurance companies determine liability in multi-car accidents and the evidence you’ll need to file a strong claim for injury compensation.

With more than 263 million vehicles on American roadways, traffic accidents are bound to happen.¹

Serious injury accidents involving three or more vehicles are increasingly common. Deadly pile-up collisions often occur on interstate highways, although multi-car accidents can happen on any busy roadway.

Establishing fault in a multi-car accident is a complex process. One or more drivers may be at fault, and multiple drivers and passengers may be injured.

Here we provide some insight into how insurance companies determine liability in multi-car accidents, and how their decisions can impact your injury claim.

Knowing what insurance companies look for will help you gather key evidence in support of your claims against all potentially at-fault drivers.

Liability and Causes of Multi-Car Accidents

When the claims start rolling in after a multiple-car accident, the affected insurance companies will begin investigating. Depending on the circumstances, an insurer may hire a professional accident reconstructionist to figure out who is to blame for the crash.

It helps to understand some legal terms used by insurance and legal professionals when discussing car accident fault:

Duty of Care: Every driver has a duty of care to prevent harm to others by driving safely and obeying traffic laws.

Negligence means failure to take reasonable care to prevent harm to others. The other driver is negligent when they don’t follow traffic laws or fail to act responsibly.

Liability means responsibility for what happened. Negligent drivers will be liable for the damages suffered by others in a multi-car accident.

Proximate Cause is when a driver’s negligence is directly responsible for injuries. Driving the wrong way on the highway would be the proximate cause of injuries to the occupants of the three cars hit by the intoxicated driver.

Driver negligence is the primary cause of most vehicle accidents. However, there may be “mitigating factors” that affect liability in multi-car accidents.

  • Weather: Heavy fog, snow, and icy roads contribute to serious pile-ups that can involve dozens of cars and trucks. Severe weather conditions are a mitigating factor that might result in none of the drivers being found liable. Each driver must rely on their own insurance coverage to pay for their injuries and vehicle damage.
  • Poor Road Conditions: Spilled oil; gravel, rocks, or boulders that fell from mountainsides; mudslides; and in some cases, the sudden appearance of huge sinkholes can set off a chain reaction leading to a multi-vehicle accident. After the first car or two, remaining drivers may be liable for not paying attention, or failing to leave enough room to stop safely.
  • Aggressive Driving: Driving over the speed limit is a leading cause of crashes in the United States. When a speeding driver is weaving in and out of traffic, other drivers may be forced to brake when they’ve been cut off, setting the stage for a series of rear-end collisions.
  • Tractor Trailers: Despite regulations meant to reduce tractor-trailer collisions, serious multi-vehicle accidents result from drowsy or inattentive truckers who drift into other lanes, fail to negotiate turns, or slam on the brakes to avoid a crash and overturn or jack-knife their rig.
  • Distracted Drivers: Cell phone talking, texting, and checking email are some of the leading causes of traffic accidents, along with eating, adjusting the radio, and other distractions. Distracted drivers who fail to see slowing or changed traffic patterns can be held liable for resulting multi-vehicle collisions.
  • Drugs and Alcohol: Driving Under the Influence (DUI) includes the use of prescription and illicit drugs as well as alcohol. Drivers who are found to be under the influence of any substance that impairs their judgment or reaction time will be liable for accidents they’ve caused.

Evidence of Liability in Multi-Car Accidents

The accident investigator working for the insurance company will gather as much information as possible before making their determination of liability.

Professional accident investigators consider the weather and road conditions, the police report, witness reports, photographic evidence, and whatever information they can uncover about the drivers involved in the crash.

The insurance adjuster will use the investigator’s findings, combined with state car accident and personal injury laws to determine liability for each of the drivers in the crash.

Don’t rely on the insurance company to make a fair determination of liability after a multi-vehicle accident. Keep in mind that insurance companies are more interested in their bottom line, meaning they are looking for reasons to deny or reduce accident claims.

The Evidence You Collect is Important

If you suddenly find yourself in a multi-vehicle accident, what you do and say immediately after the accident is critical to the success of your later claims for injury compensation.

  • Stay in Your Car and Call 911: Unless your vehicle is on fire or poses some other threat, you and your passengers should remain in the car with your safety belts on until help arrives. In many situations, you’re at risk of further injury if you get out of your vehicle. Check for injuries and call 911.
  • Watch What You Say: Don’t apologize to anyone, and don’t make excuses for what happened. Anything you say can be used against you. That includes saying that you’re “okay” or “fine” when you may have injuries.
  • Never Refuse Medical Help: Let paramedics on the scene look you over. Cooperate if they want to transport you to the hospital. Refusing medical attention at the scene gives the insurance company the perfect excuse to deny your injury claim.
  • Photographs and Video: You can begin to take photographs and videos of the scene while still in your car. When it’s safe to get out, take as many pictures as you safely can of the accident scene, the position of the vehicles, skid marks, damage to the vehicles, and other people involved in the crash.
  • Driver Information: Try to collect driver contact information, license place numbers, and insurance information for every vehicle involved in the accident. You may have to wait for the police report to identify all the drivers when there are several cars, dangerous conditions, or fatalities involved.
  • Witness Statements: Independent witness statements are best, but statements from other accident victims can also be helpful. Any person who saw how your vehicle became involved in the accident could be a valuable witness on your behalf. Ask for the person’s name and contact information. Ask them to sign and date any statement they may write.

Evidence Gathered While You Recover

  • Your Notes: As soon as possible, write down everything you remember of the circumstances leading to the accident, what happened to you and your car, and what others did and said after the crash. Your description of what happened, what other drivers or passengers said after the crash, and how they behaved can help establish liability.
  • Police Reports: Police reports usually include the investigating officer’s description and diagram of the accident, names, and insurance information for each driver, and the officer’s opinion of fault. The report will also list any traffic citations issued. Request a copy of the police report from the law enforcement agency web site or call their office.
  • Medical Records and Bills: Request copies of your medical records and bills after you have recovered from the accident. Also, gather your receipts for medications and other out-of-pocket medical expenses.

Complications in Multi-Car Collision Claims

It’s hard enough to pursue compensation for injuries when you know who hit you and liability is clear. Unfortunately, liability for a multi-vehicle accident is rarely clear and uncontested.

More Than One Driver May Be at Fault

There are two ways that shared blame might complicate your claim:

  • One or more drivers may blame you and file claims with your insurance company, or file a lawsuit against you.
  • Your insurance claim against another driver may be denied, or your compensation reduced because the insurance company argues that you share blame for the crash.

Your auto insurance company has a duty to defend you against claims and lawsuits filed by other drivers or their passengers in an accident. If you are sued, your insurance company will usually pay for a defense attorney to handle your case and represent you in court.

Your insurer won’t help you if the other driver’s insurance company is trying to reduce or deny your claim.

Most states have shared liability laws that can reduce or eliminate your right to compensation.

Shared Liability Laws

The adjuster can flatly deny your claim under the pure contributory negligence rule in Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia if you share as little as one percent of the blame for the accident.

A few other states rely on pure comparative fault rules, meaning you can seek compensation even when you are more to blame than any other driver, so long as you aren’t the only one at fault.

Most states use modified comparative fault rules. In states with modified rules, the adjuster can’t deny your claim unless you were was equally to blame (50% rule) or more to blame (51% rule) than their insured. Below those limits, your compensation will be reduced in proportion to your share of liability.

When several insurance companies have different ideas about how much fault should be assigned to each party, it sometimes takes a lawsuit by one or more injured victims to resolve their claims.

You don’t have to accept the insurance company’s assignment of blame. Talk to a personal injury attorney about the true value of your claim.

When There Isn’t Enough Money for Everyone

Each state mandates a minimum amount of auto coverage drivers must carry. Even when drivers who are liable for multi-vehicle accidents have high insurance limits (like commercial trucking companies), there might not be enough to cover severe injuries to multiple victims.

Auto Insurance Coverage Limits

Auto policies generally have two limits for bodily injury coverage: A per-person limit and a per accident limit, such as $50,000/$100,000.

The per-person limit applies to each person injured in an accident. If the at-fault driver has a per-person limit of $50,000, the most you can get from their insurance company for your injuries and pain and suffering is $50,000.

The per-accident limit applies when more than one person is injured in the same crash. If the per-accident limit is $100,000, and three people are injured, the $100,000 will be divided among the three injured people, up to the per-person limit for each person.

When multiple vehicles are involved in an accident, figuring out who’s liable for your injuries can be complicated. When a driver is liable for injuries to several people, there might not be enough insurance money to go around.

Using the $50,000/$100,000 example, the at-fault driver only has $100,000 of coverage to go around. The most any one person can get is $50,000.

What if three or four people are seriously injured, and each of the injured people has more than $50,000 in damages? There isn’t enough to go around, and the insurance company won’t take responsibility for deciding how much of the available funds to allot to each claimant.

In most states, the insurance company will file an “interpleader action,” a type of lawsuit to force the injured parties to fight it out in court.

It will be up to you and your attorney to convince the court your costs were reasonable and necessary, and why you deserve a bigger portion of the insurance money than anyone else.

Why You Need an Attorney for Multi-Car Accidents

You can’t rely on insurance companies to look out for your best interests. They will hire investigators to determine liability for multi-car accidents, but the investigators are essentially being paid to find evidence that someone else is to blame.

A good personal injury attorney will look out for you, not anyone else. Your attorney may start by filing claims against all the other drivers’ insurance companies, and will conduct their own investigation of liability.

Your attorney can take sworn witness statements, file subpoenas to discover all available insurance policies and coverage limits for each driver, run asset checks on the at-fault parties, and much more.

Most personal injury attorneys don’t charge for their initial consultation and represent injured clients on a contingency fee basis. In other words, your attorney won’t get paid unless your claim is settled or wins in court.

There’s too much at stake to handle a multi-car accident on your own. There is no cost to find out what a skilled injury attorney can do for you.

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 >>