If you or a loved one has ever been in a vehicle crash before, you probably understand the importance of fault in everything that comes afterward, especially insurance settlements and legal issues. In this post, we review how to determine who is at fault in a car accident. We feel this is essential, so people involved in motor vehicle accidents can ensure their rights are properly protected and they get what they deserve when it comes to financial compensation.

California Is an “At-Fault” State

Before we dive into the details of determining fault, we should first define a key concept: “at-fault” versus “no-fault” states. Every state in the country falls into one of these two categories.

No-fault states

In no-fault states, it doesn’t matter who was at fault in an accident when it comes to insurance responsibility. If you’re injured, or if your vehicle is damaged in a no-fault state, you file a claim with your own insurance company, regardless of who is at fault. This system is used in Puerto Rico, as well as in 12 of the US states.

The problem with this system is it makes it tough to pursue a lawsuit against other motorists in an accident. Many people decide to go to court when they feel the insurance compensation is not sufficient after an accident. Furthermore, most no-fault states place caps on the amount you can sue for.

At-fault states

On the other end of the spectrum are at-fault states. In these states, fault must be determined in an accident before anyone files an insurance claim. This is because the party who is found to be at fault is the one whose insurance covers injuries and property damage. For example, if you are found at fault in an accident with another motorist, your insurance must pay for their medical bills and car repairs.

If another party is at fault and you are not given just insurance compensation, you can bring a lawsuit to try to obtain a better settlement. This is a big deal because insurance companies consider it their job to pay out the smallest claims possible. It’s not uncommon to have to sue for the compensation you deserve.

You should be aware that California is an at-fault state, AKA a “financial responsibility” state. Due to this fact, if you register and operate a vehicle in California, you must carry at least the minimum auto liability coverage or use one of these three alternatives:

  • A $35,000 cash deposit with the DMV
  • A DMV-issued self-insurance certificate
  • A $35,000 surety bond from a company licensed to provide this in California

If you purchase a new vehicle, finance a vehicle, register a vehicle, get stopped by law enforcement, or are in a motor vehicle accident, you could be required to show proof of insurance or the alternatives above.

What are the minimum liability insurance requirements in California?

  • $15,000 for bodily injury or death to one person
  • $30,000 for bodily injury or death for two or more people
  • $5,000 for property damage

Law Enforcement Plays a Major Role

Who usually shows up right after a motor vehicle accident? Law enforcement, whether the local police department, the state police department, or the county sheriff. They assist with traffic flow, help any firefighters or EMTs called to the scene, and are largely responsible for determining who was at fault in the accident.

This is a good point for us to insert a pro tip here: even with a minor “fender bender,” you may want to call the police. Pull to the side of the road, if possible, and don’t leave the scene. This is particularly important if you are convinced another party was the one at fault in the crash. Our advice:

  • Use your judgment about staying put to show exactly what happened, or move to the side to keep yourself safe from traffic.
  • If possible, take some photos or videos with your mobile phone if you must move your vehicle.
  • If your car is not drivable or you can’t move, use your hazard lights (“flashers”) and/or flares or traffic cones to alert traffic to your accident.
  • Always be careful exiting your vehicle in heavy traffic.

So, how do police decide who was at fault in a motor vehicle crash anyway? They use multiple elements when making a decision:

  • Damage to vehicles
  • Skid marks from tires
  • Position of cars or trucks at the accident scene
  • Weather and road conditions
  • Traffic cameras
  • Dashcams
  • Security cameras from area businesses or homes
  • Local traffic patterns
  • Driver videos and photographs
  • Speaking to drivers, asking about fault
  • Soliciting reports from eyewitnesses
  • Talking to first responders (firefighters and EMTs/paramedics) on the scene about injuries indicative of crash physics or particular damage to vehicles

At times, the police report may be the starting point for further investigation. This can happen if a driver was under the influence, which may need to be confirmed with tests at the hospital. Sometimes, accident specialists are called in, especially if there were serious injuries or fatalities involved. Different insurance companies may call their own specialists, and they may not necessarily agree about how the accident occurred or who was at fault.

car accident in California

Understand How Insurance Claims Work

As we mentioned above, insurance companies consider it their job to make it tough to get a payout when their client may be at fault. They may argue that their client wasn’t at fault at all and refuse to pay the amount requested or try to negotiate a lower settlement. It’s within their rights to send their own investigators. These accident professionals can review the crash evidence, take photos of damaged vehicles, and evaluate the police report, coming to their own conclusions.

If you encounter an insurance company that won’t compensate you for bills or property loss, it’s time to reach out to a car accident attorney. A lawyer can take on the onerous task of arguing with the insurance carrier, and they have the resources to handle massive documents and back-and-forth negotiation. Most people can’t afford to spend time on this, and if you’ve been in a car accident, you may already have missed work or gotten behind in other obligations.

Proving Negligence Is a Key Strategy

Negligence is usually the most significant component when it comes to how to determine who is at fault in a car accident. What is negligence? It is defined as the failure to exercise reasonable care when it is expected you should do so. For example, when you drive a motor vehicle, the assumption is that you will do it in a way that keeps others safe, whether they are passengers in your car, other motorists, pedestrians, or cyclists.

Driving in an unsafe manner can cause a driver to be deemed negligent. There are several types of negligence that commonly contribute to motor vehicle crashes.

Driving under the influence

Most people call this “DUI” for short. Most often, they’re referring to driving while under the influence of alcohol, but it can also mean operating a car or truck under the influence of drugs. This can be street or recreational drugs, or it can be prescription drugs that have a sedating effect, such as opioid pain medications.

Distracted driving

We’ve all seen it: the person driving crazily down the highway while texting or talking on a cell phone in their hands. This is illegal in California, and this type of distracted driving is a major accident contributor. Distracted driving can also result from kids in the car or unrestrained pets – anything that takes the driver’s attention off the road.

Failure to obey traffic laws

California has a comprehensive vehicle code, and you had to have understood the basics of these rules of the road to pass a driver’s license test. We often see accidents caused by traffic law violations like speeding, ignoring traffic signals, turning against a red light where not allowed, and failure to yield where it is indicated.

Driving a defective vehicle

There are certain parts of your vehicle that are not allowed to be broken when you are driving. This includes your horn, your tires, and your brakes. Make sure your car is in good working order before driving it.

Aggressive driving

You’ve probably seen aggressive driving, too. But hopefully, you haven’t practiced it yourself. Examples of aggressive driving include riding the bumper of the car in front of you (AKA tailgating), swerving in and out of lanes, cutting off other motorists, or engaging in road rage, such as threatening fellow drivers.

On rare occasions, neither motorist in an accident is negligent, but the local government or a construction company is. This can result in unsafe roadways that cause accidents. Examples of this include slippery, oily roads or failure to mark and keep traffic off a road construction site in progress.

Comparative Negligence Is Also a Possibility

There are times when multiple parties are at fault simultaneously in a motor vehicle accident. If two motorists both ignore a stop sign and crash into each other, for example, negligence on both their parts contributed to the accident. In legal terms, this is known as comparative negligence. In cases of comparative negligence, both parties can be equally negligent, or one party can be more negligent than another that is still somewhat negligent. As you can imagine, this gets more complicated when there are many vehicles involved in a crash, such as in a pileup on the freeway.

Comparative negligence is a strategy some insurance companies use in an attempt to pay less after an accident. If you feel you have been falsely accused of comparative negligence, it may be best to consult with an attorney to get the facts straightened out and receive your proper compensation.

Quirk Reed Gives You Professional Advice for Car Accidents

In the chaos of the moment, many drivers say and do things without thinking after a car accident. Here are our tips to avoid doing things that further endanger you or complicate your case.

Remain at the scene

It’s tempting after a minor accident to leave the scene and self-file a police report. However, in most cases, you should only do this if law enforcement officers instruct you to. There could be hidden damage to your vehicle, or you may have delayed pain and consequences from an injury masked by adrenaline or shock at the time of the crash.

Make safety a priority

Safety at the accident scene should always be a top priority. Be careful exiting your vehicle, which you may have to do if it’s not drivable, but sitting in high-speed traffic isn’t safe. Always use your best judgment.

Get any needed medical treatment

If you are injured in a vehicle accident, don’t hesitate to get medical treatment, especially if you have injuries to your head, neck, back, or torso, which can become more serious over time.

Always carry proof of insurance

You are required to carry proof of insurance when you are operating your vehicle. California allows for either printed proof, which you can get from your insurance carrier or print at home, or a digital insurance card saved to your mobile device. Because of COVID restrictions, it’s usually best to exchange insurance and contact information with other drivers digitally.

Don’t say anything you don’t have to

Keep conversations with other motorists and law enforcement at a minimum. You don’t want to blurt out something you’ll regret later, which may not even be accurate if you’re in shock. Let the officers and investigators draw their conclusions first.

You have the right to consult an attorney

At any point in the post-accident period, you are allowed to call an attorney. Handling insurance claims and possible lawsuits on your own can be draining and leave you with less than you deserve. You will be able to move on with normal life faster with professional help.

Call Quirk Reed If You Need a Car Accident Attorney After an Accident

If you or a family member has been in an accident in the Bay Area and you’re having trouble with insurance settlements, protection of your rights, or determination of fault, call the law offices of Quirk Reed today. You can reach us at 888-858-1925 or request a free consultation online at your convenience.