Were you hurt in a car accident? If so, determining who is at fault for the collision is a vital part of recovering compensation for the harm you suffered, such as your medical bills, property damage, lost wages, physical pain, and emotional trauma. But just who determines fault in a car accident case?
In either case, having a car accident attorney on your side can help ensure that your rights are protected and that you receive fair compensation for your injuries and losses. If you go through the insurance system, the company’s adjusters determine who is at fault. If for whatever reason you have to file a lawsuit, it’s up to the courts to decide. In either case, the determiners rely on the advice of other experts to help them make a decision. Let’s take a closer look at why the fault is important in a car accident case, who might be at fault, and who makes the determinations in what circumstances.
Who Might You Hold at Fault in a Car Accident Case?
Several parties may be at fault for a given car accident. These include the drivers involved in the accident and any other parties whose actions or failure to act may have contributed to the accident. Let’s explore the options in detail.
The Other Driver
Investigators typically start by considering each driver involved in the accident and how their actions could have played a role in the crash. Every driver is responsible for operating their vehicle safely and obeying the rules of the road. If the other driver exhibited reckless or negligent behavior, such as speeding, distracted driving, or driving under the influence, they could be at fault.
Other Road Users
Other road users, such as pedestrians or cyclists, could also be at fault if their actions contributed to the accident. For example, suppose a pedestrian darts out into the street in front of a vehicle. The driver slams on the brakes to avoid a collision, causing the car behind them to hit their rear bumper. In this case, the pedestrian might be partially responsible. Or consider this scenario: Driver A cuts off Driver B, who swerves away from Driver B and straight into Driver C. Driver A wasn’t hit, but they are likely at fault for the crash.
If an employee is driving a company car or conducting work-related business at the time of the accident, their employer would not be at fault for the crash but might be liable.
For instance, an employer could be to blame if they gave a company vehicle to an employee who wasn’t fit to drive, if the employee was performing job duties when the crash occurred, or if they failed to comply with the relevant driving or vehicle safety regulations.
If an accident happens because of a mechanical failure or manufacturing defect in one of the vehicles, the company that made the defective car or component might be responsible. A crash victim could hold a manufacturer liable for injuries and related losses if it made products with poor designs, used shoddy materials to assemble the products, or failed to include proper warnings.
Mechanics or Repair Shops
A car mechanic or repair shop could be to blame if the accident happened because of a mechanical failure caused by a negligent repair or maintenance job. For example, a mechanic or repair shop may be liable if they fail to properly diagnose or fix an issue that later results in an accident. They could also be responsible if they fail to follow proper procedures or use low-quality parts during inspections, maintenance, or repairs.
If an accident happens due to a poorly designed or maintained roadway, the government entity responsible for it may be liable. Examples of dangerous road design or maintenance could include issues like inadequate signage, lack of guardrails, or poor drainage. It’s worth noting that car accident claims against the government are subject to a strict set of rules and deadlines, so it’s best to contact a knowledgeable attorney if you believe you have such a claim.
Remember that determining fault in a car accident case is not always a straightforward process, and sometimes multiple parties are responsible. It’s a good idea to work with a seasoned car accident lawyer who can conduct an independent investigation into the accident and gather supporting evidence to determine who is responsible.
Why Does It Matter Who Is at Fault in a No-Fault State?
Florida follows a “no-fault” auto insurance model, which means each driver’s insurance provider pays for many of their policyholder’s losses, regardless of who was at fault. A key component of a no-fault insurance policy is personal injury protection (PIP) coverage. This insurance pays for your medical expenses, lost wages, and certain incidental losses you incur as a result of crash-related injuries any time you are in a wreck.
While PIP insurance covers you regardless of who is to blame, determining who is at fault is still crucial under certain circumstances, such as:
- When your losses exceed your PIP policy limits. Your PIP coverage should pay for your medical expenses and related losses, but it may not cover all of your expenses. If you sustain serious injuries and don’t have enough to pay your accident-related healthcare bills, you can step outside of Florida’s usual no-fault system and file a claim against the other driver. However, you can only claim compensation from another driver if you can prove they were at fault.
- When you decide to file a lawsuit. In some cases, your crash-related injuries or losses might be so extensive that the available insurance coverage is not enough to pay for them. If so, you might choose to file a lawsuit against the other driver to recover additional compensation. In a no-fault state like Florida, you can only file a lawsuit if your injuries meet a certain severity threshold and you have evidence showing that the other driver was at fault.
- When you renew your auto insurance policy. Your no-fault provider should cover certain losses up to the limits of your policy, but claiming those no-fault benefits could affect your premiums when you renew your insurance policy. If the insurance company believes you are at fault for an accident, it might use that determination to increase your monthly premiums or decline to renew your policy altogether.
Who Determines Who Was at Fault for a Car Accident?
In most car accident cases, several parties will work to determine who was at fault and who deserves compensation. The following parties usually investigate and help determine fault in car accident cases
Police officers are among the first responders after most car accidents. The police typically investigate the scene of an accident, interview the drivers and any witnesses, and document what they find in an official report. Based on their investigation, the police will usually include a provisional determination of fault in this report. However, police reports are not legally binding documents and are not always admissible as evidence in court.
The Insurance Companies
When insured drivers are in an accident, their insurance providers will also play a role in determining fault. Insurance companies hire adjusters to conduct their investigations, gather evidence, and interview witnesses. Adjusters use this information to determine who is at fault, whether to accept a claim and, if so, how much to pay. The insurance company’s determination of fault is also not legally binding, but an insurer might use it as evidence should the case go to court.
In some cases, an attorney, the insurance company, or the court might work with expert witnesses who can testify about certain aspects of the accident. For instance, an accident reconstruction specialist could create a diagram of the accident and explain how the collision happened. Similarly, a medical expert could provide professional insights into the causes, extent, and most likely consequences of someone’s crash injuries.
Some insurance companies, law firms, or other businesses hire private, third-party investigators to help them determine fault in an auto accident case. Hiring a private investigator after a car accident is often a good idea because a private investigator does not have a vested interest in the outcome of a case like other parties do. Additionally, private investigators often have specialized knowledge about accident investigations and access to resources like specialized equipment.
When the insurance companies and claimants cannot resolve a car accident case themselves, the case may go to trial, where the courts are responsible for determining who was at fault. This could occur if the drivers involved in the accident cannot agree on who was at fault or if there is conflicting evidence. In these cases, a judge or jury will serve as fact-finders, hearing arguments and testimony from both sides and making a determination based on the evidence.
Do I Have to Accept the Determination of Fault?
No, not necessarily.
If you disagree with the insurance company’s determination of fault after a car accident in Florida, you can:
- Speak to the insurance adjuster. If you think the insurance adjuster overlooked important evidence or made a mistake in their determination, you can talk to them directly or ask to speak with a supervisor or manager.
- Seek arbitration. If you can’t resolve the case with the insurance company, consider seeking arbitration. Arbitration is an alternative dispute resolution process where an independent arbitrator hears evidence and makes a decision that the parties agree to abide by.
- File a complaint. If the insurance company does not offer a fair settlement to resolve the case, you might also want to file a complaint with the Florida Department of Financial Services, Division of Consumer Services. This division mediates disputes between consumers and insurance companies.
If you disagree with the court’s determination of fault after an accident, appealing the decision is your only option. An appeal is a formal request asking a higher court to review the decision of a lower court and ensure the lower court applied the law correctly. The appeals process is complex and time-consuming, and higher courts typically defer to lower courts whenever possible, so it’s important to work with a lawyer who can develop a clear and strong case to support your appeal.
How Do Investigators Determine Who Was at Fault?
Investigators follow several steps to determine who was at fault after a car accident in Florida, including:
One of the first things many investigators do is interview anyone who saw the accident occur. Reliable witnesses with no stake in the outcome of a case can provide valuable and unbiased information about what they saw and heard before and after the accident.
Examining the Vehicles
Investigators will examine each vehicle involved in the accident to look for evidence like dents, damage patterns, and debris that provide clues about how the accident happened. They will also inspect each vehicle’s systems, parts, and electronics to check for malfunctions or failures that may have contributed to the accident.
Reviewing Physical Evidence
Investigators will also examine any physical evidence that was at the accident scene, such as broken glass, skid marks, and debris. Physical evidence often indicates the speed and direction of the vehicles at the time of the collision. It can also hint at the sequence of events that led up to the accident.
Analyzing Crash Data
Most newer cars come with event data recorders (EDRs) or black boxes, which provide valuable information about the speed and direction of a vehicle prior to a crash. EDRs can also tell investigators whether a driver applied the brakes or the safety system deployed the airbags or took computer-guided evasive actions.
Recreating the Scene
Many investigators use what they found in earlier steps of the process to reconstruct the accident. Digital simulation software to recreate accident scenes allows them to experiment with different scenarios and variables to see what caused specific types of damage, providing a higher degree of certainty about the accident’s cause.
Investigators often consult with experts in accident reconstruction, medicine, or other specialized fields to help them understand what occurred. Expert witnesses can analyze and interpret evidence to determine the cause of an accident.