If another driver says you caused a car accident, you might feel stressed and unsure about what to do next.
A lawyer can help you. An experienced car accident attorney can look at all the details of the accident to uncover the truth and show what really happened. They can also deal with the insurance companies for you.
With their knowledge and experience, a lawyer can protect your rights, tell your side of the story, and demand the fair recovery you deserve.
Contributory and Comparative Negligence Laws in the U.S.
Comparative and contributory fault laws address situations where more than one person shares the blame for a harmful incident, such as a car accident. These laws help courts and insurance companies determine how much responsibility each person in an incident bears and how much they should pay for the harm it causes.
In the U.S., each state sets its own comparative or contributory negligence law, and these laws vary considerably from one to another.
In all comparative fault systems, the court hearing a case starts by looking at the accident and assigning a percentage of fault to each driver involved in a crash. For example, one driver might be mostly at fault for running a red light, while the other is also partially at fault for speeding.
Once the court establishes each driver’s percentage of fault, they use the state’s fault laws to determine how much each driver should get or pay accordingly.
The U.S. has four main types of comparative and contributory negligence systems: pure contributory negligence, pure comparative negligence, modified comparative negligence, and slight vs. gross negligence systems.
Let’s explore each type in depth.
Pure Contributory Negligence
Pure contributory negligence laws are the strictest in the country. Only four states and the District of Columbia have pure contributory fault systems. These jurisdictions bar someone who is even a little bit at fault for an accident from receiving any money from the other driver, even if the other driver was more at fault.
Let’s say you’re in a car accident where the other driver was clearly to blame, but they say you made a small mistake, too. For example, maybe the other driver ran a red light and hit you while you were proceeding through an intersection, but they say they only hit you because you were speeding.
If this happened in a state with a pure contributory negligence system and the court partially blames you, it could block you from recovering the money you need.
This kind of law is strict because you must be completely free of fault in states where it applies to get compensation. It doesn’t matter if it’s only one percent of the total fault.
If courts or insurers decide you share any part of the blame, you lose your right to collect damages (money for your losses) from the other party. This system differs from most other fault systems, where you could still get some money even if you share part of the blame.
If you live in a state with a pure contributory negligence doctrine and the other driver accuses you of fault, contact an experienced lawyer immediately. They can gather evidence, such as traffic camera footage, witness statements, and accident reports, to build a strong case showing you were not in any way at fault. They can also present your case effectively and argue forcefully on your behalf during insurance negotiations or car accident lawsuits.
Pure Comparative Negligence
On the other end of the spectrum, pure comparative fault laws are the most lenient. Under these laws, each driver can claim compensation for the harm they suffered, no matter how much they contributed to the accident. But the amount of money they can recover depends on how much they were at fault.
For example, let’s say you’re in an accident, and the court decides you are a little bit at fault while the other driver is mostly at fault.
In states with pure comparative fault laws, both you and the other driver could claim money for your losses. However, the amount available to you would decrease slightly based on your (smaller) percentage of fault. The other driver’s available compensation would decrease even more because they contributed more to the accident.
The key thing about pure comparative fault systems is that even if you are more at fault than the other driver, you can still get some compensation.
This dynamic is important in situations like truck accidents, where large insurance policies mean that even injured parties who bear a larger portion of fault could recover much-needed compensation for their injuries. It is also more flexible than others because it allows for a fair distribution of costs, given each driver’s actions.
If another driver says you are at fault in a pure comparative negligence state, a lawyer can maximize your compensation by developing a strong case on your behalf. They can identify and present valuable evidence that emphasizes the other driver’s wrongful behavior and minimizes or eliminates your degree of fault.
Modified Comparative Negligence
Most states use modified comparative fault laws, blending elements from pure contributory and pure comparative systems.
Like in pure comparative fault states, modified comparative fault states allow you to recover compensation even if you are partially to blame for an accident.
Modified comparative fault states also reduce the amount of compensation you can recover based on your share of the blame. However, you can only recover compensation in these states if you are either less or no more to blame than the other party. The distinction varies by the jurisdiction you’re in.
If a court thinks you are even slightly more at fault in a modified comparative negligence state, it will bar you from recovering any money. This kind of system aims to ensure that a less at-fault driver does not have to pay for the injuries suffered by someone who is mainly responsible for an accident.
A lawyer can protect your rights if another driver accuses you of fault in a modified comparative negligence state. They can establish a strong claim on your behalf to keep your degree of fault below the other party’s and preserve your ability to claim fair compensation.
Slight vs. Gross Negligence
South Dakota has a unique approach to handling car accident cases. It’s the only state that uses a “slight vs. gross negligence” system, which resembles a modified comparative fault system.
In South Dakota, the law focuses on whether your negligence (lack of care) in the accident was slight or gross in comparison to the other driver’s negligence. In other words, percentages of fault don’t matter.
Here’s how it works: If you are in a car accident and want to file a claim for compensation, you need to prove that any negligence on your part was fairly minor – that you weren’t too careless given the circumstances. Gross negligence means the other driver was extremely careless or made a big mistake.
For example, let’s say one driver was driving slightly over the speed limit (slight negligence), and another ran a red light and hit them (gross negligence). In that case, the first driver might be able to claim compensation. But if it turns out that they were also texting while driving, which is a bigger mistake than just speeding, the court might decide their negligence wasn’t merely slight. In that case, they couldn’t recover any money from the other driver.
How Do Car Accident Investigators, Insurance Companies, and the Courts Determine Fault?
After a car accident, numerous parties investigate to figure out who is at fault, as this decides who pays for the harm others suffered as a result.
Investigators, insurers, and courts follow several steps to make this determination. They look at evidence, talk to people in the accident, and consider traffic laws to understand what happened. Here are the steps investigators generally follow during their investigations to determine fault.
The initial step involves thoroughly collecting evidence from the scene of the accident. Doing so involves taking photographs of the vehicles and the surrounding area and noting any environmental factors that might have played a role, such as obscured traffic signs or road construction.
Investigators often look for skidmarks, which indicate sudden braking, and debris from the vehicles, which helps in understanding the impact. They also seek out any available video footage, which could be from traffic cameras, nearby businesses, or even dashcams, to get a visual account of the accident.
Examining Vehicle Damage
Investigators closely examine the extent and location of the damage to each vehicle to draw conclusions about how they struck one another. For instance, front-end damage to one vehicle and back-end damage to the other would suggest the first car’s driver rear-ended the second car’s driver.
They consider the angle and intensity of the impact, as this can indicate speed and direction of travel. This step often involves a detailed inspection of both cars to understand the dynamics of the collision, such as whether either driver tried to swerve or brake before the accident.
Collecting statements from drivers, passengers, and witnesses is another important step. Each driver’s account of the event provides insight into what they were doing and thinking just before the accident. Investigators also talk to passengers, who can provide different perspectives.
Witnesses often see things unfold from a distance that provides greater context, and they can also offer unbiased accounts of the incident. These statements can sometimes reveal inconsistencies or corroborate details of the accident, helping investigators piece together a more accurate picture.
Considering Traffic Laws
This step involves reviewing applicable traffic laws to identify whether anyone violated them. For example, if evidence suggests a driver ran a red light or was speeding, this would clearly breach traffic laws and could affect fault determination.
Investigators compare the specific circumstances of the accident against local traffic regulations to assess whether any illegal or negligent behaviors contributed to the incident.
Consulting Accident Reconstruction Experts
In complex cases, investigators might work with accident reconstruction specialists. These experts use physics and engineering principles to recreate accidents, often using computer simulations.
They analyze factors like vehicle speed, angles of impact, and the force of the collision to develop a scientific interpretation of how the accident occurred, which is particularly useful in cases where the cause of the accident is not immediately apparent.
Considering Weather and Road Conditions
Weather and road conditions are significant factors in many accident cases. If necessary, investigators might assess whether conditions like rain, snow, fog, or ice could have contributed to the accident.
They might also consider the state of the road itself if there were potholes, poor lighting, or unclear traffic signage. This information helps them understand whether external factors played a role in the accident and to what extent they might have influenced each driver’s actions.
Assessing Driver Behavior
Finally, investigators will work to understand each driver’s behavior leading up to the accident. They might look for evidence of reckless driving, speeding, distracted driving, or driving under the influence.
This step can involve checking phone records, reviewing traffic citations, conducting interviews, and requesting credit card statements that might show a driver had recently purchased and consumed alcohol.
The aim is to establish whether the behavior of any driver directly contributed to the accident, which is a key factor in determining fault.
Why You Need a Lawyer If the Other Side Blames You for a Car Accident
If another driver claims you are at fault in a car accident, having a personal injury lawyer can make all the difference in the outcome of your case.
They can push back against these assertions, minimize your degree of fault, and demand a fair outcome by:
- Investigating the accident to gather useful evidence
- Interviewing witnesses to get their statements
- Reviewing police and accident reports for details
- Consulting accident reconstruction experts
- Gathering and reviewing medical records relevant to the accident
- Calculating a fair settlement based on your losses
- Communicating with the other driver’s insurance company
- Negotiating with insurance adjusters on your behalf
- Interpreting the provisions and limits of your insurance policy
- Advising you on the implications of accepting a given settlement
- Preparing and filing legal documents for your claim
- Representing you in court, if necessary