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How Is Fault Determined in a Car Accident?

In most cases, insurance companies will determine who is at-fault according to state laws where the incident occurred. And they’ll also review the facts relating to the accident to determine who was negligent. Fault can be assigned to the party that was most negligent — or in greatest violation of state laws — when the accident happened. But frequently, all parties share some responsibility for a collision.

Note that the word “negligence” itself can mean different things, depending on the state you’re in — we’ll explore that in detail below. If you’re still wondering how to determine fault in a car accident, keep this in mind: although vehicle damage can be important in identifying fault, other factors like weather conditions, physical evidence and police report details play a key role in how fault is determined in a car accident.

So, what does an “at-fault accident” mean according to the law and how do insurance companies determine fault? Let’s clear up the confusion and dive in — to help you figure out who’s at-fault in a car accident.

Feeling shaken is a typical response to any car accident, even the smallest fender-bender. And that’s okay. Figuring out what to do after a car accident that’s not your fault can be confusing. Before you try to determine what happened or who’s responsible for the accident, take a deep breath and focus on what’s most important: the health and safety of all involved.

Let's explore how at-fault laws work across the US and dive into how the right auto coverage can make a real difference to your personal finances, in the wake of an at-fault accident.

Table of Contents:

What Is an At-fault Accident?

What Is a No-fault Accident?

If You’re At-fault in a Car Accident

How to Work with Your Insurance Company After an Accident

Does Car Insurance Cover At-fault Accidents?

How Do Insurance Companies Determine Fault in a Car Accident?

Will Being At-fault Affect My Insurance Premiums?

What Is an At-fault Accident?

Exactly how does car insurance work when you are at-fault for an accident? At-fault accidents only occur in states that do not require personal injury protection (PIP) coverage for vehicles, also known as “tort states.” Insurance groups will operate in accordance with the state laws where the accident happened. In at-fault accident insurance states, the driver found responsible for causing the accident will be required to pay for all damages — including medical costs and property damage expenses.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, the majority of US states operate under this so-called “tort liability” insurance system. In tort states, it’s the at-fault driver’s auto insurance that covers injury expenses. It’s worth noting that PIP coverage does not extend to personal property costs that result from a car accident. Paying for those damages are still the responsibility of the at-fault driver.

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What Is a No-fault Accident?

In states with no-fault insurance laws, drivers are required to purchase car insurance with personal injury protection (PIP). It’s coverage that helps to pay for medical costs regardless of who’s at-fault in an accident.

In PIP states, you may be wondering how car insurance works when you’re at-fault and conversely, who pays for car damage in a no-fault state. Typically, all parties involved in the accident pay for ambulance expenses, emergency room costs and medical bills with PIP coverage. But it’s who’s named at-fault in given accident that will have to cover property damages. Because PIP coverages vary by state, it’s key to check in with your American Family Insurance agent to understand your state’s coverage requirements where you live.

No-fault accident insurance is mandated only in some states. In addition to Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. There are 16 states in the U.S. that use some type of the no-fault system and require the purchase of PIP insurance coverage:

List of No-fault States
Arkansas
Minnesota
Delaware
New Jersey*
Florida
New York
Hawaii
North Dakota
Kansas
Oregon
Kentucky*
Pennsylvania*
Massachusetts
Texas
Michigan
Utah

*States that have “optional no-fault,” laws, where drivers can choose to opt out of the no-fault system.

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If You’re At-fault in a Car Accident

Your job at the scene of an accident is not to point fingers, accuse others of wrong-doing or admit fault. But once you know everyone is safe, you have some responsibilities and a role to play. So, what should you do after an accident?

Stay put

For safety’s sake, you might need to move your car out of an intersection or heavy traffic, but don’t leave the scene. If you’re worried about an injury or someone else in the other vehicles involved, let 911 come and handle it. And never pursue a vehicle that flees the scene of the accident — wait for the authorities to arrive in that case and let them know what happened.

Contact the proper authorities

If you or others need medical attention, call 911 immediately. This should be the first thing you do. Be sure to get a police report afterward, it can really help the insurance companies determine who was at-fault in the car accident.

Gather evidence

It’s helpful if you can safely take photos of the accident as-is, before the cars are moved out of traffic. Begin documenting the car damage from the accident and any other facts. Gather license plate numbers, the time of day, traffic conditions, and any road hazards that might have impacted the accident.

If there are witnesses, try to get names and contact information. And, of course, you’ll want the other driver’s name and contact information along with their insurance information.

Avoid admitting fault after the accident 

You might find it difficult, but try to avoid admitting fault. Don’t lie. Simply report the facts as you saw them without saying “it’s my fault.”

The police and the insurance companies will come to their own conclusions about who is at-fault in an accident based on all of the facts and reports from everyone involved and any witnesses. Your insurance group may also seek legal advice to help identify the faulty party.

Contact your insurance company

You'll want to let your insurance carrier know about the accident right away. Not only will your agent help you start processing your claim, they can also help you understand your car insurance coverage and walk you through gathering evidence at the scene.

Tell them the basics about the accident, including the location, then ask for next steps. Ask how to start the process of filing a claim. You can begin the process through the MyAmFam app, or you can go online and use our Report a Claim form.

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How to Work with Your Insurance Company After an Accident

It can be difficult to prioritize your actions and figure out what to do after a car accident that’s not your fault. And even if you are found at-fault for an accident, it’s best to keep things simple and focus on the details you’ll need to resolve your claim.

Report the facts

Admitting fault to your insurance company after a car accident is never a good idea. But make sure you detail what happened from your point of view. As the saying goes — just the facts.

Gather and submit evidence

If you took pictures and collected contact information from other drivers and/or witnesses, pull this data together. Your insurance agent will tell you how they want you to submit it in order to determine who is at-fault.

Share the police report

If the police came to the scene of the accident and made a report, let your agent know. Find out if they want you to get the report or if they will get it for you.

File the claim

Later, when you get a chance to talk to your agent in a safe location, ask how to start the process of filing a claim to repair damage after the accident. Or you can go online and use our Report a Claim form.

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Does Car Insurance Cover At-fault Accidents?

The type of car insurance you have will play a big role in the coverage you get when you’re making an at-fault car accident insurance claim.  Let’s look at some of the more common types of car insurance and how they come into play. Keep in mind, car insurance requirements by state can vary, so it’s best to check with your agent to understand the at-fault laws where you live.

Collision 

If you’re in an accident, whether it’s your fault or not, your optional collision insurance can step in and help pay for damages to your vehicle. Typically, collision insurance has a deductible. When setting up your coverage, you'll pick the deductible amount that works for you and your budget. Usually the higher your deductible is, the lower your premiums are.

Bodily injury liability insurance

When you’re determined to be at-fault for an accident, bodily injury liability coverage helps cover the costs of injuries to your passengers, the driver and passengers of the other vehicle. It goes beyond just medical expenses and can help with pain and suffering, lost wages, legal fees and funeral costs. This is exactly the type of insurance you want in this situation.

Comprehensive

This is optional insurance covers you when there’s an accident that doesn’t involve another car. Comprehensive insurance covers you if you hit an animal, your car is vandalized or is damaged in a hailstorm. But comprehensive insurance isn’t what you'll use when you hit another vehicle.

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How Do Insurance Companies Determine Fault in a Car Accident?

Before we decide how insurance determines fault, it’s key to look at how the state views it. In most states an accident is fault-based, meaning someone is at-fault or negligent, even if the fault is shared between the drivers. A few states have no-fault insurance laws. In these states each person’s insurance company pays for medical expenses up to a predefined amount. But even in no-fault states, the cost of repairs is still subject to fault.

Your insurer will determine fault by the reviewing details about how the accident happened. They’ll review site-specific details including photos and other physical evidence of damage. Adjusters take into account statements made by those involved in the accident and compare them against third-party eye-witness accounts, if available. They’ll also review the police report for details of negligent driving actions of those involved.

In states where no-fault accident insurance is required, insurance companies will adhere to applicable state laws that define negligence. This is important because the way a state interprets negligence will impact how claims are paid out and how fault is determined. Frequently, the fault for causing a car accident is shared.

When both drivers act negligently and an accident results, a percentage of fault will be assigned to each party involved in the collision. Suppose Car A turning left through an intersection and hits Car B, traveling in the opposite direction and driving over the speed limit. The driver of Car A might be found 70 percent negligent and Car B would be deemed 30 percent negligent.

That shared degree of negligence can define terms for claim settlements and payouts made by insurance companies. Because states define negligence differently, it’s important to understand the terms they use and where these laws apply:

Pure negligence, or contributory negligence

If you’re found negligent in any way and your actions contributed to a car accident, states that observe pure or contributory negligence do not allow you to receive insurance payouts from others. This applies even if your found to be responsible for a small percentage of the accident.

States that use pure/contributory negligence
Alabama
North Carolina
District of Columbia
South Dakota
Maryland
Virginia

Comparative negligence

States that use comparative negligence allow a weighted percentage of fault to be assigned to all parties involved in an accident, when applicable. The degree of fault responsibility directly relates to the amount of compensation a given party will receive.

In the case above, Car A was found to be 70 percent negligent, which would result in Car A’s insurance company paying up to 70 percent of Car B’s repairs and medical costs.

States that use comparative negligence
Alaska
Mississippi
Arizona
Missouri
California
New Mexico
Florida
New York
Kentucky
Rhode Island
Louisiana
Washington

Modified comparative negligence

In most states that apply modified comparative negligence, you may not be allowed to recover expenses from others in an accident if you’re found more than 50 or 51 percent at-fault. Additionally, each party must use their own insurance for repair expenses and medical bills — even in cases where fault is shared across multiple parties.

States that use modified comparative negligence
Arkansas
Nebraska
Colorado
Nevada
Connecticut
New Hampshire
Delaware
New Jersey
Georgia
Ohio
Hawaii
Oklahoma
Idaho
Oregon
Illinois
Pennsylvania
Indiana
South Carolina
Iowa
Tennessee
Kansas
Texas
Maine
Utah
Massachusetts
Vermont
Michigan
West Virginia
Minnesota
Wisconsin
Montana
Wyoming
North Dakota

So now that we know there may be a different set of criteria in your state, let’s look at how insurance companies typically determine fault in a car accident.

Police reports

The police report is considered a good, objective look at the accident. While the police officers typically weren’t there when it happened, they’re experienced in asking the right questions, collecting important information and getting people to cooperate.

Evidence from the scene

If you gathered evidence, your insurance company is going to use this to help determine fault. They might also collect evidence from the other insurance company.

Witnesses

If there were witnesses who provided their names and contact information, your insurance company will reach out to them to get their take on the accident.

The environment

Your insurance company will carefully evaluate the accident location, the time of day and other factors. For example, certain areas are known to be dangerous, or inclement weather could have been a factor, or construction or another accident may have played a role in your incident.

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Will Being At-fault Affect My Insurance Premiums?

If it’s determined that you have been found at-fault in a crash, your insurance rates won’t automatically rise. They might not rise at all. Your insurance company will look at several factors before making any rate determinations. They’ll review your driving record and the circumstances around the accident.

And if you have accident forgiveness on your policy, your rates may not go up. If your premium does increase, your next step is to start fresh and reestablish your good driving record. One accident won’t affect your rates forever.

If you’re found at-fault in a car accident or it’s determined that you were negligent in a car accident, try not to be too hard on yourself.

Accidents happen, and we’re here to help you through it and get back on track. If you’d like more information on car insurance you can connect with your American Family Insurance agent. And be sure to check out our auto insurance comparison guide to discover what coverages work best for you.


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Related Topics: Car Insurance , Car Safety , On The Road