Fault and damages in rear-end collision lawsuits

The rear driver in a rear-end collision is not always at fault for the accident. Liability in a rear-end collision is not automatic and sometimes the lead driver or another vehicle is liable for the injured drivers' damages. If a driver or passenger is involved in a rear-end collision, an experienced California personal injury lawyer can fight for the victims to get them compensation for their injuries.

Below, our California personal injury lawyers discuss the following frequently asked questions about rear-end collisions in California:

If you have further questions after reading this article, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

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Liability in a rear-end collision is not automatic and sometimes the lead driver or another vehicle is liable for the injured drivers' damages.

1. Who is at fault in a rear-end collision in California?

In most rear-end motor vehicle accidents in California, the rear driver is at fault for the accident. However, the rear driver is not always at fault in a rear-end collision. The lead driver or another vehicle could be the cause of the rear-end accident.

Determining who is at fault in a car accident is important because that determines who is liable to pay for the other drivers' damages. Liability can be shown by figuring out if a driver was negligent and what percentage of the accident was caused by the driver's negligence.

Negligence in a car accident can be shown through failure to drive with care or through violating a traffic law or rule, including:

  • Texting while driving,1
  • Distracted driving,
  • Speeding,2 or
  • Tailgating.3

Injured plaintiffs can recover compensation for their injuries through filing a personal injury lawsuit in California. Drivers and passengers injured in a rear-end accident can seek compensatory damages after an accident. These damages can include:

2. Is fault in a rear-end collision automatic?

Fault in a rear-end automobile accident is not automatic. While the rear driver is often at fault for following too closely or distracted driving, the lead driver can also be at fault. Moreover, another vehicle, pedestrian, or even road conditions may have been a contributing cause of a rear-end collision.

Fault in most car accidents is determined by negligence. Under California's negligence laws, the negligent party is liable for any injuries and damages caused to another. In a rear-end traffic collision, a negligent driver is liable to any injured drivers or passengers.

In order to recover damages after an injury accident, the injury victims generally need to show the defendant was negligent. The elements for negligence in California require showing:

  1. The defendant owed the victim a duty of care;
  2. The defendant breached that duty of care through negligence; and
  3. The defendant's negligence was a substantial factor in causing the victim's injuries or death.4

When driving in California, the basic standard of care for drivers includes:

  • Use reasonable care when driving;
  • Keeping a lookout for pedestrians, obstacles, and other vehicles; and
  • Control the speed and movement of the vehicle.

Failure to use reasonable care in driving a vehicle is negligence.5

3. When is the lead driver at fault in a rear-end accident?

Most rear-end accidents are caused by the rear driver following too closely for the road conditions or not leaving enough room to stop safely. However, the lead driver can be at fault in a rear-end accident. If the lead driver is not using reasonable care when driving, the lead driver could be liable for any damages.

The lead driver could be at fault in a rear-end accident through negligent or reckless driving, including:

  • Pulling out in front of another car;
  • Breaking suddenly;
  • Reversing into a car;
  • Road rage;
  • Intentionally trying to get hit;
  • Drunk driving; or
  • Driving with broken brake lights.

4. Who is at fault if a driver in front breaks suddenly?

A common cause of rear-end accidents involves a driver breaking suddenly, causing the rear driver to hit the vehicle ahead. A driver in the rear may blame the front driver for breaking suddenly; however, the rear driver may still be at fault for the accident.

California's vehicle laws require drivers to leave enough space for cars in front to be able to stop if necessary. According to California Vehicle Code 21703, “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.”6

There is no specific safe following distance. A safe following distance depends on the road conditions at the time. For example, a driver may need to adjust the following distance based on:

  • Nighttime driving
  • Wet road conditions
  • Heavier vehicle weight
  • Stop-and-go traffic
  • Loose gravel
  • Soft brakes

In addition to following too close, rear-end collisions are also caused by distracted drivers. A rear driver may claim the lead-driver braked suddenly but the rear driver was not paying attention to the road at the time. When the driver looks up, they may suddenly realize the car in front has slowed or stopped.

Distracted Driving and Sudden Braking

Mobile phones are increasingly the cause of distracted driving. However, distracted driving can involve anything that takes the driver's attention away from their surroundings, including:

  • Changing the radio;
  • Looking at maps;
  • Mapping directions;
  • Putting on makeup or shaving;
  • Eating while driving;
  • Reading the newspaper;
  • Watching a video;
  • Adjusting the seat or steering wheel; or
  • Lighting a cigarette.

If the rear driver was not keeping a safe following distance, speeding, or driving while distracted, the rear driver may be considered negligent. However, the driver in the front could have been driving negligently and caused the accident, or at least partially caused the accident. A lead driver may be liable for causing a rear-end collision where the driver:

  • Drove a vehicle with broken brake lights;
  • Intentionally slammed on the brakes to try and get hit for insurance fraud; or
  • Slammed on the brakes recklessly because of road rage.

Example: Andrew is driving home, stuck in the terrible traffic on the 405. Andrew gets an alert on his phone. Traffic is stopped, so Andrew checks the message on his phone. A car honks at Andrew who sees that traffic is moving again. Andrew turns off his phone and puts it down but when he looks back up he sees the car in front of him brake suddenly. Andrew doesn't have enough time to stop and rear-ends the car in front of him.

Andrew says the driver stopped suddenly. However, Andrew may not have left enough room in front of him to allow time to safely stop. Andrew also may have been distracted. Andrew is likely to be at least partly liable for the accident because he was no driving with reasonable care.

5. Who is at fault if a driver pulls out in front suddenly and gets hit?

Fault when a driver suddenly pulls out in front of another car and gets hit can be complicated. The driver who pulls out suddenly or the driver who fails to stop in time could both be at fault for the accident.7 This depends on the specific facts of the accident, including:

  • Vehicle speed,
  • Road conditions,
  • Turning signals,
  • Traffic signals,
  • Lane markings, and
  • Other factors.

If the rear driver is not driving cautiously, including speeding, the rear driver may be liable for the accident. If the other driver pulls into moving traffic across multiple lanes, without signaling, or crosses a solid yellow line, the driver who was rear-ended could be liable for the accident.

Left Turns, U-Turns, and Right-of-Way

Another cause of a rear-end collision could be another driver turning left in front of oncoming traffic or making an illegal U-turn. Under California's “Right-of-Way” laws, the driver intending to turn left or complete a U-turn shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles approaching from the opposite direction until the turn can be made with reasonable safety.8

A driver who is attempting to make a left turn must make sure no oncoming vehicles are close enough to be considered a hazard before crossing traffic, including making a U-turn. If a driver makes a left turn without yielding to oncoming traffic and is hit, the turning driver may be negligent and could be liable for the damages and injuries.9

Example: Belinda is waiting to turn left from a left turn lane into a shopping center in Irvine. There is a lot of traffic and Belinda has to wait until all three lanes in the opposite direction are clear before she can go.

A truck driver in the lane closest to her going in the opposite direction stops to let Belinda cross. A van in the next lane over also stops to let Belinda pass. Both drivers wave Belinda across. Belinda cannot see the third lane and there are too many cars in front of her for her to have a clear view of the third lane.

Belinda decides to use this chance and guns it across the 3 lanes and into the parking lot. However, when Belinda gets to the third lane she suddenly sees another car turning into the parking lot and is hit from behind.

Belinda may be liable for the accident because she did not make sure no oncoming vehicles were coming when she crossed traffic.

6. Multiple Vehicle Rear-End Accidents

Many rear-end accidents involve multiple cars. This includes “chain reaction” rear-end collisions where the vehicle in the rear hits a car which then hits the car in front, and so on. In multi-vehicle accidents, the cars that initially got into the accident are often blamed for the damage. However, multiple drivers could be liable in a multi-car rear-end accident.

In some cases, the liability for the accident could involve neither driver involved in a rear-end collision. A rear-end accident could be caused wholly, or in part, by:

  • Another reckless driver;
  • Vehicle brake manufacturer;
  • Hazardous road conditions;
  • Off-leash dog running out into the street; or
  • Cyclist or pedestrian.

Example: Xavier got a ticket for having a brake light out and finally took time off work to get it fixed. Xavier was having trouble finding the auto parts shop and is looking at the map on his phone.

Yolanda met up with some work colleagues for lunch at a restaurant and had a few beers with her meal. Yolanda felt a little buzzed, but normally she thinks she drives fine after a few drinks.

Zeke just bought a used car from a used car salesman and was taking the car home. The car dealer assured Zeke the car was in top condition but offered no guarantee at the low sales price.

Xavier realized he almost missed his turn for the auto parts store and slammed on the brakes to make the turn. Yolanda didn't see Xavier's brake lights and slammed on the brakes hitting Xavier's car. Zeke saw the car in front of him stop and hit the brakes but the brakes didn't work and hit Yolanda's car which then smashed into Xavier's car.

Liability in this case is complicated but could be shared by Xavier, Yolanda, and the used car salesman. Xavier may be liable by having broken brake lights, driving while distracted, and driving without due care. Yolanda may have been liable for drinking and driving in violation of the law. The used car salesman could have been liable if the salesman knew or should have known there was a problem with the vehicle's brakes.

Fault in a rear-end accident is not always clear, especially when multiple parties are involved. The parties involved may have conflicting versions of what occurred and who was to blame. Negligence and liability is often a decision that is made by a jury in a motor vehicle accident lawsuit.

7. Damages in a Rear-End Collision Lawsuit?

Damages in a rear-end collision can include any costs or losses associated with the accident. This includes both economic and non-economic compensatory damages. Compensatory damages in a car accident can include:

  • Medical bills,
  • Emergency room treatment,
  • Physical or occupational therapy,
  • Prescriptions,
  • Medical supplies,
  • Lost wages,
  • Lost earning capacity,
  • Loss of consortium,
  • Disfigurement and scarring, and
  • Pain and suffering.

If the accident involved criminal conduct or reckless driving (such as a DUI causing injury), the plaintiff may also be able to claim punitive damages.

Death of a Loved One in a Rear-End Collision

If a parent or spouse lost a loved one in a rear-end collision, the surviving family members may be able to file a claim under California's wrongful death laws. A spouse or domestic partner can recover damages when a spouse or domestic partner died because of the wrongful conduct of another.10

The damages available in a wrongful death lawsuit can include burial expenses, lost financial earnings the victim would have earned, and compensation for the loss of companionship, affection, and support. In a wrongful death lawsuit, certain family members can recover damages in California, including:

  • Spouse;
  • Domestic partner;
  • Children;
  • Grandchildren (if the individual's children are deceased); or
  • Anyone else who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by California intestate succession laws.

8. Can I file a lawsuit if I was partly to blame the accident?

California is a “comparative fault” state. This means that you may be able to recover damages even if you were partly to blame for the accident. Under California's “comparative fault” law, fault can be divided between the parties involved. The injured party may be able to recover damages based on the level of fault of the other parties.

For example, if two drivers were involved in a rear-end collision, the question of liability could be decided by the jury. The jury finds Driver A 20% liable for the accident and Driver B is 80% liable for the accident. Driver A could recover 80% of the damages from Driver B, based on comparative fault.

9. Do I need a lawyer after a rear-end collision if it was not my fault?

Many drivers think they can handle an accident claim on their own, or they will let the auto insurance company handle it. It is important to remember the role of the insurance adjuster and who the adjuster works for. The insurance company is interested in saving money and paying out as little as necessary.

The insurance company may try and deny the claim, or keep delaying any resolution so that the injured driver will finally just give in and accept whatever settlement is offered. Instead of accepting the insurance company's low-ball settlement offer, talk to an experienced California personal injury lawyer.

Experienced rear-end collision accident attorneys know the insurance companies' tricks and how to fight back. Our network of caring California personal injury lawyers, car accident investigators, and medical experts will uncover all the evidence in your case so that you can get the compensation you are owed after an accident.

10. What should I do if I was rear-ended by an uninsured driver?

Uninsured and underinsured motorist (UMC/UIM) coverage is optional insurance that pays for damages when another driver is at fault for the accident, but either:

  • Has no automobile insurance, or
  • The driver's insurance policy does not provide enough coverage to pay for the injured party's damages.

Insurance companies are required to offer UMC/UIM policies but drivers are not required to purchase uninsured driver coverage.

Under California law, driver's are required to obtain a minimum level of insurance coverage, that includes liability minimums of:

  • $15,000 for injury/death to one person.
  • $30,000 for injury/death to more than one person.
  • $5,000 for damage to property.11

Even if a driver has insurance, these liability limits may not be enough to cover the damages in a serious rear-end collision. If another driver is hurt in a serious accident, he or she could make a claim under his or her UMC/UIM policy to cover damages in excess of the other driver's coverage.

If an injured party does not have UMC/UIM insurance, they may be limited on what kinds of damages they can recover. The injured parties could file a personal injury claim against the at-fault driver. However, if the at-fault driver does not have insurance, chances are he or she does not have a lot of financial assets that would cover the damages after an accident.

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Call us for help...

For questions about rear-end traffic accident lawsuits in California or if you want to discuss your case with one of our skilled California personal injury attorneys, please contact us at Shouse Law Group.

We have local law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.


Legal References:

  1. California Vehicle Code 23123.5(a) (“A person shall not drive a motor vehicle while holding and operating a handheld wireless telephone or an electronic wireless communications device unless the wireless telephone or electronic wireless communications device is specifically designed and configured to allow voice-operated and hands-free operation, and it is used in that manner while driving.”)
  2. California Vehicle Code 22350 (“No person shall drive a vehicle upon a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable or prudent having due regard for weather, visibility, the traffic on, and the surface and width of, the highway, and in no event at a speed which endangers the safety of persons or property.”)
  3. California Vehicle Code 21703 (“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.”)
  4. See, e.g., California Civil Jury Instructions ("CACI") 400. See also California Civil Code section 1714(a) (“Everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person.”)
  5. CACI 700. Basic Standard of Care. (“A person must use reasonable care in driving a vehicle. Drivers must keep a lookout for pedestrians, obstacles, and other vehicles. They must also control the speed and movement of their vehicles. The failure to use reasonable care in driving a vehicle is negligence.“)
  6. California Vehicle Code 21703, see footnote 3 above.
  7. CACI 700, see footnote 5 above.
  8. California Vehicle Code 21801 (“(a) The driver of a vehicle intending to turn to the left or to complete a U-turn upon a highway, or to turn left into public or private property, or an alley, shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles approaching from the opposite direction which are close enough to constitute a hazard at any time during the turning movement, and shall continue to yield the right-of-way to the approaching vehicles until the left turn or U-turn can be made with reasonable safety. (b) A driver having yielded as prescribed in subdivision (a), and having given a signal when and as required by this code, may turn left or complete a U-turn, and the drivers of vehicles approaching the intersection or the entrance to the property or alley from the opposite direction shall yield the right-of-way to the turning vehicle.”)
  9. CACI 704. Left Turns. See also CACI 705. Turning (“A driver must use reasonable care when turning or moving to the right or to the left.”)
  10. California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 (“A cause of action for the death of a person caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another may be asserted by any of the following persons or by the decedent's personal representative on their behalf: (a) The decedent's surviving spouse, domestic partner, children, and issue of deceased children, or, if there is no surviving issue of the decedent, the persons, including the surviving spouse or domestic partner, who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession.”)
  11. California Insurance Code 11580.1b

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