How is fault determined in a car accident?

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More than 6.7 million car accidents occured in the United States in 2019, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Determining fault in an auto accident can be tricky. Drivers often end up in court hashing out the details of their collision. Bankrate’s insurance editorial team explains what fault is, how to determine it and what no-fault accidents are.

What is “fault” in an accident?

Fault refers to the party who caused a car accident. In some accidents, fault is easier to assign than in others. For instance, you’re typically at fault if you fail to stop when another driver brakes and you crash into them.

Each state has laws about how fault is determined in a car accident. It’s important for car insurance companies to know who’s at fault so that they can determine which party is responsible for the damages.

Below is a list of accident scenarios and how fault, liability and claims are handled with each one.

  • 100% at fault: If a driver is deemed 100% at fault in an accident, their insurance company will be responsible for covering damages.
  • 51% or more at fault: Sometimes, your percent at fault matters. Some accidents involve two or more partially at-fault drivers. In some states, if one driver is 51% or more at fault, that driver will cover 100% of the damages. In other states, each driver’s insurance company covers the percentage of damages equal to their percentage of fault. For instance, if one driver is determined to be 30% responsible for an auto accident, their insurance company would pay 30% of the damages.
  • 50/50 fault: If it’s too difficult to determine fault, particularly if no witnesses saw the accident take place, some insurance companies will decide to split the costs equally between the two drivers. Some states may not allow this.

Ways to determine fault

Determining fault can be difficult, especially if no witnesses were present. Typically, the stakeholders involved in determining fault are the drivers involved, the police and the drivers’ insurance companies.

Involved drivers

The drivers involved in a car accident may decide who is at fault at the scene of the incident. Drivers may accuse each other of causing the accident and in some cases, a driver admits guilt. If you admit fault, you may have to shoulder financial responsibility for the incident. If you’re attempting to prove your innocence, it helps to take pictures of the accident and get contact information from witnesses. You’ll also likely want to exchange insurance information with the other driver and make notes about what happened while waiting for the police to arrive.

Police report

After an auto accident, the police will analyze the scene to try to understand who is at fault. They may make a diagram of the incident and note the extent and location of vehicle damage on the police report. Police can be instrumental in determining whether additional factors such as driving under the influence or texting and driving were involved in an accident. Car insurance companies will read the accident report after it is filed.

Insurance companies

Your car insurance company will decide which claims they fulfill and which they do not. If the other party involved is the at-fault driver, your insurance company will seek a payout from that driver’s insurance provider.

When fault cannot be determined

In some cases, fault cannot be determined by the drivers, police or insurance companies. In these cases, you have a few options. Some drivers choose to use arbitration, which is a means of settling fault without going to court. A neutral arbiter is chosen to decide the percentage of fault each driver has.

Other drivers decide to file a lawsuit and go to small claims court to seek payout for damages. Keep in mind that in the states of Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C., drivers who are even 1% at fault may not be able to recover damages from another driver over a car accident. In most other states, you may be able to sue the other driver for a certain amount of fault, but you could also be made to pay your portion of damages.

What are no-fault states?

In no-fault states, drivers can use their personal injury protection (PIP) to help pay for their injuries or those of any passengers in their vehicle, regardless of fault. Note that drivers in no-fault states also carry liability coverage and are liable for medical and vehicle damage that they cause to the other. If a driver is guilty of causing an auto accident in a no-fault state, their liability coverage would pay for the other driver’s damages.

You may want to reference this list to see if you live in a no-fault state:

  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Pennsylvania
  • Utah

When it comes to car insurance, a state is classified as either a no-fault state or a tort state.

In no-fault states, PIP pays out to cover your injuries after an accident regardless of fault. However, one or more drivers may still be responsible for covering property damage, and in several states, if certain conditions are met, you may be able to sue the at-fault driver for injury expenses.

In tort states, if you aren’t at-fault in an accident, you can choose to either wait for bodily injury liability from the other driver or use your own medical payments coverage.

Frequently asked questions

What is a 50/50 car accident claim?

If a collision occurs and it is difficult to prove fault — or if fault is equally shared — a 50/50 car accident claim might be filed. This means that each driver would be covered by their own insurance policy.

What is medical payments coverage?

Medical payments coverage is optional in most states. This coverage type pays out up to a certain coverage limit and covers a driver’s or passenger’s injuries, regardless of fault. Medical payments can also cover medical expenses if you’re a pedestrian hit by a car. In tort states, not-at-fault drivers could use this coverage to pay for medical expenses if they don’t want to wait for bodily injury liability from another driver to pay out.

What is the best car insurance company?

The best car insurance company will be different for everyone depending on individual circumstances such as location, driving history and vehicle type. One way to find the best car insurance company is to speak to an independent insurance agent who can guide you to companies that offer your desired policy. Then, you can compare online quotes from multiple carriers to find the best rate. You may also want to take a look at available discounts from each company to see which ones apply to you.

How do I file a car insurance claim?

To file a car insurance claim, you’ll want to gather necessary information such as the other driver’s vehicle and insurance information, contact information from witnesses and any photos you’ve taken. Then, you can typically file a claim online, on an app or over the phone. Speaking to a claims specialist can aid in this process.

How much does car insurance cost?

The national average cost of full coverage car insurance is $1,674 per year. However, the average cost of car insurance varies by state, sometimes by hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Written by
Lizzie Nealon
Insurance Writer
Lizzie Nealon is an insurance writer for Bankrate. Her favorite part of the job is making home, auto and life insurance digestible for readers so they can prepare for the future.
Edited by
Insurance Editor