Can I be liable if my car is rear-ended in California?

If you are involved in an automobile accident in which your vehicle is rear-ended, most of the time, the driver that hit your car from behind will be determined to be at fault, no matter why you stopped. Fault is not codified into the State of California vehicle code. Therefore, the police determine fault when they issue their accident report. This determination is based upon the damage to the vehicles as well as the basic "rule of the road" that requires a driver to be able to stop safely if traffic stops suddenly ahead of him or her. If he or she cannot stop safely, the driver is traveling too fast, too closely, or both, and therefore in violation of the vehicle code.

In a typical rear-end car wreck, the driver in front is either stopped or slowing when the driver in back hits the car from behind. While it is the policy of most insurance companies to accept that the driver in the back car is at fault in a rear-end collision, that is not the law. No law can possibly anticipate all the possible variations of every accident. Therefore, insurance companies offer to settle claims based on their estimate of what would probably happen if the case came to trial--who would be found at fault, and how much they would be liable for. Generally, people who get rear-ended are not determined to be negligent, while those who rear-end them are. However, the circumstances can and do vary from case to case.

In California there is also a doctrine called "comparative negligence," which lets juries determine, on the basis of the facts of a particular case, whether both parties were at fault, and to what degree. If you rear-ended someone, and you are being pinned with 100% of the liability even though you think that the other driver is partially to blame, you should take the matter to court to get a determination as to whether comparative negligence applies to your accident.

Keep in mind that under the rule of comparative negligence, even if you have been rear-ended, your own carelessness might reduce your compensation. A common example of this is when your brake lights or taillights were not functioning -- especially if the accident happened at night. Or, for example if your car had mechanical problems but you failed to do all that you could to move it off the road. Finally, if you cut in front of the rear-ending vehicle at the last second and a collision results, a judge or jury may have to decide whether you share some of the liability.

However, it remains difficult to prove comparative negligence in a rear-end collision. Therefore, most insurance companies assign blame fairly automatically to the back car. Nevertheless, this rule is not set in stone and can, occasionally, be disputed with the facts.

For more information on California auto accidents, click on the following articles:

How much can I get for my auto accident claim and injury in California? How much is my case worth?

How is responsibility in California determined after a car crash? Who is at fault?

My car, driven by a relative, was involved in a car crash in California. Am I liable for injuries and damage to the other person if my relative is negligent?

How do I protect my rights when I'm involved in a car accident in California?

The other driver involved in the car accident in California had no insurance. What is my recourse?[Brandon: link]

I had a car accident in California, other guy's fault, car totaled, but the driver's insurance company will not cover all costs. What are my options now?