Determining Fault With Rear-End Collisions

Many different types of car accidents can occur. They can range from minor neighborhood bump-ups to high-speed collisions and everything in between. 

Some of the most common types of accidents are rear-ended collisions. This occurs when a vehicle trailing behind another vehicle crashes into the car in front. This usually happens because the leading car applies the brake suddenly, without giving the car in the back enough time to respond. 

In most of these accidents, the trailing car (the car in the back) is held responsible. Why is this the case? Put simply, even if the car in the front breaks without warning, the second car should have left enough room in front to avoid running into the back of them. 

While assigning fault in rear-end collisions is usually straightforward, not all cases are cut and dry. Today, we’re taking a look at how to determine fault when this type of accident occurs. 

Determining Fault:  General Rule for Rear-End Collisions

Most of the time, if one driver rear-ends another leading car, the driver in the back is held legally responsible for any property damages or physical injuries that the driver in the front sustains. 

This is because the rear driver is expected to know their basic duty: to protect themselves and others on the roadway. This duty exists in every state, city, and jurisdiction regardless of geographic location.

When a trailing driver follows another driver too closely and fails to keep a safe distance away, they are in breach of this duty. In these cases, the term “safe distance” isn’t exact. It will depend on a variety of factors, including: 

  • Vehicle speed
  • Terrain
  • Traffic flow
  • Road conditions 

Following too closely in the city, for instance, might look a little different than following too closely on a one-lane road in the country. However, all drivers are expected to gauge their surroundings and make sure they have sufficient space in front of them to stop if required. 

If they knowingly follow the lead car too closely, they are considered negligent. This is why in most rear-end collisions, the trailing driver is found to be at least partially at fault for causing the accident. 

Yet, while this might be the rule, there are a few exceptions. In the following situations, it isn’t automatically assumed that the trailing driver is at fault:

  • If the lead driver acted negligently and their negligence caused the accident
  • If the state follows contributory or comparative negligence laws render the lead driver ineligible to recover damages from the trailing driver

Let’s take a look at how these scenarios work. 

Proving Negligence

A rear-end collision settlement hinges on the plaintiff’s ability to prove that the other driver was acting negligently. This means that the driver had a duty of care and failed to uphold it. To determine fault through negligence, there are four things you have to do:

  1. Establish the duty of care
  2. Prove that this duty was breached
  3. Prove that the breach of duty caused the accident 
  4. Prove that you suffered (physical/mental/emotional pain, property damage) as a result of the accident 

Establishing the Duty of Care

As mentioned, the duty of care is the responsibility of every driver, on every roadway. It’s the duty of everyone on the road not to act in a way that might cause an accident. That’s the first part of the equation, and it’s the easiest to prove. 

Proving the Duty Was Breached

The second part can be a little trickier. Next, you have to show that the other driver breached this duty. There are multiple ways this could happen. For instance, the offending driver might fail to:

  • Follow at a safe distance
  • Keep their eyes on the road
  • Pay attention to hazards
  • Drive at a reasonable speed (taking road conditions and weather into account)
  • Stop their vehicle within a reasonable time
  • Maintain full control of their vehicle
  • Yield the right of way to an oncoming vehicle
  • Use their turn signals appropriately

Proving the Breach Caused the Accident

Drivers breach their duty on an everyday basis, both knowingly and unknowingly. However, not all of these instances of negligence lead to a collision.

To build a strong case, you must not only be able to show that the other driver was in breach of duty. You must also have evidence that this specific breach led directly to the rear-end accident in question. In most accidents, there are eyewitnesses and physical evidence that one particular car is at fault. Usually, it’s the trailing driver who shoulders most of the blame.

However, it is possible for the driver in front to also be considered negligent. This can occur if:

  • The lead driver suddenly puts their car in reverse
  • The lead driver suddenly presses their breaks for no apparent reason
  • The lead driver’s brake lights are inoperable or malfunctioning 
  • The lead driver experiences a mechanical problem but fails to move the vehicle to the side of the road

Even when these instances occur and the lead driver contributes to the accident, they’re rarely considered to be fully at fault. Rather, the trailing and lead drivers usually share the fault when that is the case. 

You will need to gather as much evidence as possible to prove that the breach of duty catalyzed the sequence of events that caused the collision. An experienced car accident lawyer will be able to sort through the accident data, mining it for insights that demonstrate the other driver was acting negligently. 

Proving That You Suffered

It’s not enough to simply get frustrated that a driver is tailgating behind you. Each one of us has been taken aback by someone’s reckless behavior on the road. Still, that doesn’t mean we should open a claim for each instance. 

To create a case, you must also be able to show that you suffered as a result of the driver’s negligence or breach of duty. 

This is where concrete evidence is essential. Look for any types of documents that clearly display the full extent of your pain and suffering after the accident. This might include:

  • Doctor’s notes
  • Medical history
  • Employer forms (W-2s, 1099s)
  • Physical therapy or rehab notes
  • Images and videos of the crash site
  • Images and videos of your personal injury progression
  • Images and videos of the property damage your vehicle sustained

The more evidence you can gather, the stronger your case will be. You need to convince the insurance agency that the other driver was at fault, their actions led to the accident, and you suffered as a result. 

If you can prove that you suffered, then the offending driver is legally responsible to compensate you for that suffering. Sometimes, this is easy to prove. For instance, you can take photos of your car and share repair bills to calculate the total cost of damage to your vehicle.

Proving Personal Injuries

As such, most insurance companies are fine with paying for those costs. However, it can become a little more complicated when proving physical, emotional, or mental pain after an accident.

Personal injuries stemming from rear-end collisions (such as neck pain or whiplash) can be difficult to detect and prove, and they may not even show up on a diagnostic exam. The same applies to mental anguish and emotional trauma, which may be very real but difficult to quantify. 

This is why it’s important to visit a physician after the accident, even if it was minor. Any doctor’s notes, prescriptions, medical documents, or hospital bills that you have could be considered key evidence in your case. 

A Note on Brake Checking: How to Prove Intentional Braking

If the lead driver suddenly applies their brakes, this is called a brake check. Often, they’ll do so to send a signal to the trailing driver that they’re following too closely. While it might sound like a common occurrence, it’s a dangerous practice that’s considered a form of road rage.

This is because the lead driver doesn’t usually tap their brakes gently. Rather, they slam them on purpose to surprise, upset, or intimidate the driver behind them. As a result, the trailing driver has to apply their brakes with sudden force or even swerve to avoid a rear-end collision. 

They may be able to maneuver this response smoothly and avert a crisis. Or, they might fail to respond quickly enough and enter into an accident. Brake checking can even lead to physical and verbal altercations between the two drivers. 

If a police officer witnesses brake checking, they’ll almost always issue a traffic violation to the offending driver. In some severe cases, they could even press criminal reckless driving charges. If their actions cause an accident, they’ll usually be held partially or fully liable for causing it. 

However, it can be difficult to prove that the lead driver was intentionally applying their brakes. It’s common for lead drivers to deny the claim or try to explain it away with an excuse. They may even accuse you (the trailing driver) of tailgating or following them too closely. 

If possible, look for witnesses who were at the scene of the accident and saw the brake check when it occurred. Their account of the events can provide clarity and help the police determine what really happened. You can also check for surveillance cameras or doorbell cameras near the scene, as these devices could contain a record of how the occurrence unfolded. 

Types of Negligence: Comparative vs. Contributory

If you’re driving down the road, obeying all of the posted signs and the speed limit, and a car suddenly runs into the back of your vehicle, you can typically assign total fault to that driver. 

However, as we’ve shared, the leading driver can be at least partially at fault in many situations. When trailing and lead drivers share fault for an accident, the verdict isn’t always simple or clear. 

In these cases, the rules vary from state to state based on contributory and comparative negligence laws. Typically, you’ll only have to contend with comparative vs. contributory negligence definitions if your car accident lawsuit goes to trial.

However, it’s still important to understand how they work. Insurance adjusters will reference the negligence laws in your state when they’re negotiating the settlement after your accident. 

Let’s take a quick look at how these types of laws differ from one another. 

Contributory Negligence

Contributory negligence laws are stricter than comparative negligence ones. As such, only a handful of states still follow these guidelines. Under this type of law, if Driver 1 can show that Driver 2’s negligence contributed to the collision by any percentage, then Driver 2 cannot recover any type of settlement at all. 

This means that even if Driver 2 was only 1% responsible for the rear-end car accident, they won’t be able to recoup any damages, even if Driver 1 was 99% responsible. 

Comparative Negligence

Under comparative negligence laws, a driver’s liability might be reduced if they were partially responsible for causing the accident, but it will not necessarily be eliminated. There are two different ways this can occur. 

Pure Comparative Negligence

With pure comparative negligence, the liability is split according to each driver’s percentage of fault. This means that if Driver 1 is 20% to blame for a rear-end collision and they have $15,000 in damages, they can only collect $12,000 from Driver 2. 

In this scenario, if Driver 1 takes 20% of the blame, then Driver 2 is left with 80% of the blame. Thus, $15,000 x 80% = $12,000. 

Modified Comparative Negligence

Like pure comparative negligence, liability is split into modified comparative negligence. However, there are limits. Usually, those limits are 50% or 51%. 

If a plaintiff’s share of the liability meets or exceeds that level, then they cannot receive any type of recovery for the accident. In other words, if they’re considered to be more than 50% at fault for the accident, then they cannot receive compensation from the other at-fault driver. 

Hire a Car Accident Lawyer After a Rear-End Collision

Even when rear-end collisions are minor, it’s still smart to hire a car accident lawyer to help you navigate your case. They can help you fight for your rights and obtain the compensation that you need to recover. 

At Sweet Lawyers, we have a team of experienced auto accident attorneys ready to learn more about your case and offer professional guidance. Contact us today for a free consultation to learn more about what we can do and the services we provide. 

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