How is responsibility in California determined after a car crash? Who is at fault?Auto accidents usually occur because one or more drivers or have been negligent in some way with respect to the operation of his or her vehicle, and that negligence caused or contributed to the cause of the accident. Drivers have a duty to exercise reasonable care while behind the wheel. Obvious infractions or violations of the California Vehicle Code, such as driving in excess of the speed limit, ignoring traffic signals, failing to signal, etc. can be used as evidence of one's negligence in contributing to the cause of a car crash. However, there are other things a driver may be doing which are distracting and unsafe, such as talking on a cell phone while driving (now illegal without a hands-free device in California) or texting or even eating while operating a vehicle. All of these are examples of evidence which may assist the decider in their determination of fault.
Who decides fault? Typically, it is an insurance adjuster, sometimes aided by a police report which is based upon statements from the drivers and possibly witnesses to the accident, physical evidence, such as skid marks on the road, damage to the cars, etc. However, sometimes fault is not easily determined and a car accident case winds up in court, so that a judge or jury can make a fault determination.
Examples of Driver Negligence
Driving in excess of the speed limit is negligent, but, like all negligent acts, it may or may not create fault. If your speed was a factor in causing the accident, then you will be found at least partially liable (see Comparative Liability below). If the accident would have occurred anyway, however, your speed may not be relevant. If the injuries caused to the other driver or passengers would have been less severe at lower speeds, then your speed clearly will be relevant to your liability for their injuries.
Sometimes there are road conditions that require you to drive at a rate of speed lower than the speed limit, such as rain, snow or road construction. Traveling faster than posted signs or than would be reasonable under the conditions constitutes negligence, and any accident that arises as a result of your speed can give rise to fault on your behalf.
Even driving too slowly can constitute negligence. If you are on the freeway driving 40 miles per hour, for example, and all the other traffic is flowing at or near the speed limit of 55, you could be stopped and cited for driving too slowly, because you are creating a hazardous situation on the road.
- Failure to Pay Attention
Vehicle operators must keep a proper lookout for other vehicles and individuals when driving on the roads and must control the vehicle at all times to prevent a wreck. This is a simple rule. Fiddling with your ipod or texting are obvious examples of violations of this regulation.
- Failure to Yield Right of Way
The basic rules of the road include yielding the right of way to other drivers in situations such as: entering a freeway, before making turns, or whenever there is a yield sign. Violating this rule constitutes negligence and, therefore, if your failure to yield causes or contributes to the cause of the accident, you may be found liable.
- Vehicle Defect
The owner or operator of a motor vehicle has a duty to inspect and maintain his or her vehicle. If your brake lights are out, for example, and a driver behind you doesn't see that your car has stopped and hits you, the negligent care of your car may have created at least some partial fault -- even though you were rear-ended.
- Illegal Turns
If you make a left turn at 5:00 p.m., for example, when the sign says no left turns from 4-6 p.m., and an accident occurs as a result of your illegal turn, you may be found responsible for having caused the accident due to your negligence.
- Failure to Signal
Any time you turn, change lanes, or enter or exit a freeway, you are required to signal. If you do not, you are negligent. If, as a result of that negligence, you cause or contribute to the cause of an accident, you may be found at fault.
- Failure to Maintain a Safe Following Distance
The violation of this rule often results in rear-end collisions because the failure to keep a reasonable distance between your car and the car in front of you increases the likelihood that you are unable to stop in time in the event that the car ahead of you slows down or stops for any reason.
You get the general idea here. If you violate the rules of the road, and that negligence causes or contributes to the cause of an accident, you may be found at fault for that accident.
Just a word about comparative liability. In California, like many (but not all) states, if you are in an accident and the other driver was at fault, yet he or she can prove that you were partially at fault, too, any money you receive from the other driver or their insurance company for your injuries will be reduced by your own percentage of fault. It is typically the insurance adjuster who determines fault; however, if the claim becomes a lawsuit and goes to court, a judge or jury will decide apportionment of liability. So, for example, imagine a situation where you are traveling at a speed of 35 mph in a 25 mph zone, and the other driver makes a left turn in front of you, failing to yield the right of way to an oncoming car. If the other driver can demonstrate that your speed was a contributing factor to the accident, you will share the liability. If you would have gotten $10K for your injuries and the adjusters decide that you were 20% at fault because of your speed, your settlement will be reduced by 20% and you will get only $8K. If the other driver who is 80% at fault was injured, he will now be entitled to a settlement, but it will be discounted by 80%, because the accident was still mostly his fault.
For more information on California auto accidents, click on the following articles: