Numerous factors surrounding a car accident can be used to tell who was at fault for the crash. Some of these are
- the location of the damage on the vehicle,
- statements by the drivers and any witnesses,
- skid marks, and
- video of the accident.
Pieces of evidence like these are used to show who is liable.
What evidence can tell who is responsible for a car accident?
There are lots of different facts and circumstances that can be used as evidence to show who was responsible for a car crash. Some of the most common include:
- the location and extent of the vehicle damage,
- the resting spots of the vehicles involved,
- statements by the drivers or any witnesses,
- video or surveillance footage that caught the moment of the collision,
- skid marks,
- the presence of any traffic control devices, like stop lights or stop signs, and
- whether the airbags deployed in the vehicles.
In some cases, though, this evidence can be ambiguous. It matters who is the one to gather it. Different parties can be biased and try to use ambiguous evidence to support the narrative about the crash that most serves their own interests.
Some of these facts and circumstances are worth explaining further.
Video or surveillance footage
The best evidence there is of a car accident is video of the collision. This shows exactly how the crash happened. However, it is rare for crashes to get caught on video. If they do, it is often because a nearby business happened to have a surveillance camera pointing in the right direction. For this reason, footage is usually only a possible source of evidence if the crash happened in an urban area.
If the accident was a hit-and-run, surveillance footage can be useful even if it did not catch the actual collision. If the footage captured a damaged vehicle near the scene, it might be enough to find the driver.
A reliable source of evidence about who was at fault for an auto accident is the location, nature, and extent of the vehicle damage.
The location of vehicle damage often persuasively shows how the accident occurred. When one car has damage on the front while the other has damage on its side, it was likely a T-bone accident. When the other vehicle has damage on its back fender, it was likely a rear-end collision. Using this evidence and the layout of the street, it can be easy to figure out what happened.
The nature and extent of the vehicle damage can also be used as evidence of fault. The extent of the damage is a good indicator of the speed of the collision. Low-speed crashes cause less damage than high-speed collisions. This can be evidence that someone was speeding. The nature of the vehicle damage is useful for hit-and-run crashes. Vehicle parts left on the scene can be used to identify the vehicle that fled.
Air bag deployment
Air bags only deploy in certain conditions. Generally, front airbags only deploy in frontal or near-frontal collisions over 10 miles per hour. If the motorist or passenger is wearing a seat belt, the necessary speed may be higher.1
If the air bags have deployed, it means that the conditions for their activation were satisfied in the crash. This can be used to piece together what happened.
When a driver hits the brakes on a fast-moving vehicle, the spinning of the wheels can be reduced more quickly than the speed of the vehicle. This produces a skid mark as rubber is scraped off the tires by the road.
The length of the skid marks can show how fast the vehicle was traveling when the driver first hit the brakes. Using the length of the skid marks to determine speed also has to take into account the road surface and conditions, as well as the efficiency of the brakes. This can be evidence that one driver was breaking the speed limit.
Statements by drivers and witnesses
The statements by drivers and witnesses can also be helpful in determining who was at fault for the accident. However, they are not always reliable.
Statements by eyewitnesses to the accident can be useful. However, it is rare for someone to catch the moment of impact. They often only catch a glimpse of what happened. This can be useful for piecing together what happened and who was at fault.
Statements by drivers are usually biased. They generally try to blame the other driver for the crash. Because of this tendency, when a driver admits that they were at fault, it is often treated as strong evidence that they were responsible. This is why it is important for accident victims to not talk about who was at fault at the scene of the crash.
Who gathers this evidence?
While anyone with access to the scene of the accident can gather this evidence, generally only 3 groups of people do so:
- police officers,
- insurance adjusters, and
- personal injury lawyers.
Not all of these people are reliable, though.
The police report
The police officers who respond to the crash will take note of all the details that they think will be relevant. They will include this information in the police report. The report will include who was involved and what the police officers think happened. Sometimes, the accident report will say who was at fault for the crash. This is usually the case when the law enforcement officer issues a ticket for a traffic law violation that led to the crash, like if the at-fault driver ran a red light or took an unsafe left turn.
Most police reports are unbiased. However, if the accident involved a police car or a local police officer, it may not be.
Just because the police report is unbiased does not mean that it is always reliable. Police may miss important details, especially when the accident was not a serious one that called for an accident reconstruction expert. Especially when the accident was a relatively minor one, their investigation may be cursory and not very thorough. In these cases, they often fail to take witness statements.
An adjuster from the car insurance company
Drivers who are involved in a car accident generally have to report it to their car insurance company. If you were hurt or suffered property damage you will file a claim for compensation. The report will trigger an investigation. An insurance adjuster will examine the evidence that was already gathered by the police officers. He or she may also go to the scene of the crash or personally look at the vehicle damage to figure out what happened.
Insurance adjusters, however, are biased. They get paid by the insurance company to minimize the insurance payout for the accident. They will look for reasons to deny your claim, minimize your injuries, or pin the blame for the accident on you.
Your personal injury lawyer
Your personal injury lawyer will also gather information about who was responsible for the crash. He or she will use that evidence to advocate on your behalf, and will challenge signs that you were responsible or that you were not seriously hurt. Your car accident attorney will also help you work with the relevant insurance company and can file your car accident case in court, if necessary.
What if multiple parties were responsible for the auto accident?
Not all car accidents are solely one driver’s fault. In many cases, more than one party is responsible. In these cases, the outcome will depend on the state where the accident occurred. Each state has a shared fault law. They fall into 2 categories:
- comparative negligence, and
- contributory negligence.
Depending on which rules your state uses, your share of responsibility can reduce your compensation or completely prevent you from recovering anything. This can make it crucially important to have a car accident lawyer from a reputable law firm representing you.
In states that use comparative negligence, the jury in a personal injury trial will be tasked with assigning a percentage of fault to each party in the case. Your award will then by reduced by your percentage of responsibility.
Different states use different comparative fault rules. In some states, like California,2 your award is always reduced by your percentage of fault, no matter how responsible you were. In other states, like Texas,3 you will be barred from recovering anything if you were more than half at fault.
A couple of states, like Virginia,4 use contributory negligence rules. In these states, if you were responsible at all for the accident, you will be barred from recovering any compensation.
What about in “no-fault” states?
Some states require drivers to carry no-fault insurance coverage, also known as personal injury protection (PIP). In these no-fault states, you would file an insurance claim against your own insurance company for your medical expenses after a crash, no matter who was responsible. However, the at-fault driver’s insurance company will still usually be responsible for your property damage.
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “Airbags.”
- Li v. Yellow Cab Co., 13 Cal.3d 804 (1975).
- Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code 33.001.
- See, e.g., Coutlakis v. CSX Transportation, Inc., 796 S.E.2d 556 (2017).