What Does At-Fault Mean?

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In 2018, there were 36,560 car accidents recorded by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). That’s why most drivers are required to carry car insurance. In the event of an accident, insurance will pay to repair vehicle damages or cover medical expenses if there are injuries.

Car accidents are usually caused by one driver crashing into another. The driver responsible for the crash is considered to be at-fault a designation which determines which driver’s insurance company will cover the losses resulting from the crash.

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What is at-fault?

At-fault simply refers to who was responsible for the car accident. One driver did something that caused them to crash into another person’s vehicle. A driver could be at-fault for a simple fender bender at a stop light or a major highway crash that causes multiple injuries.

When it comes to insurance, the at-fault driver’s insurance will usually cover the damages or medical bills for the driver(s) they hit. That means the driver at-fault will have to pay their deductible before coverage kicks in. After an accident, the at-fault driver can also expect their car insurance premium to increase.

However, things get tricky when it’s not completely clear which driver was at-fault. In some situations, both drivers may share some of the blame. So instead of relying on each driver’s explanation, the insurance company will step in to determine who was most at-fault.

First, the insurance companies representing the drivers will give each person a percentage of the fault, based on their driving behaviors. Then, a claims adjuster will gauge the level of fault of each driver based on the specifics of the accident. The adjuster will also review state laws to figure out which driver acted with the most negligence.

If both drivers in the accident are found responsible, their insurance companies will usually pay for their portion of the damages. For instance, if one driver was found to be 70% responsible, their insurance provider would cover 70% of the damages and the other driver’s insurance company would cover the rest.

When two or more drivers are partially to blame for an accident, their insurance companies have to work closely to determine the level of fault for each driver. If the accident resulted in costly damages, the drivers involved will usually work with a lawyer to represent them. But if the adjuster and the drivers aren’t able to agree on their level of fault it could result in a lawsuit and trial.

If the case does go to trial, the court will be left to decide who was at-fault. The jury will use one of three systems to gauge the negligence of each driver, which include:

Pure Contributory Negligence: Pure contributory negligence is when the behaviors of the driver being sued contributed to the defendant’s vehicle damages or injuries. Under this system, both drivers are eligible for compensation, even if one driver is only found 1% responsible.

Pure Comparative Negligence: Pure comparative negligence is when both parties obviously share some of the blame. Under this system, the driver getting sued isn’t eligible for any compensation, even if both drivers are found at-fault.

Modified Pure Comparative Negligence: Modified pure comparative negligence works similarly to pure comparative negligence. The difference is in the compensation. Under this system, the driver getting sued is not eligible for compensation if they hold 50% or more responsibility for the accident. (Some states follow a 51% rule.)

Generally, modified pure comparative negligence systems are the most common approach when an insurance lawsuit goes to trial. It’s also important to note that not all states follow these systems. For example, only four states follow the pure contributory negligence system.

Can I be found at-fault in an accident in every state?

No, states fall into two categories—no-fault and at-fault. In an at-fault state, the driver responsible for the accident is required to pay for the other party’s damages and medical bills. In no-fault states, each driver’s car insurance will pay for their respective losses, regardless of who caused the accident.

Drivers in no-fault states are legally required to carry Personal Injury Protection (PIP) insurance, which is an add-on to their car insurance policy. If a driver is in an accident in a no-fault state, their PIP insurance will cover their medical expenses, lost wages and related costs.

Some at-fault states also require drivers to carry PIP insurance, including Arkansas, Delaware, Maryland, Oregon and Texas.

What states have a no-fault policy?

There are currently 12 states that have a no-fault policy, including:

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

What are common at-fault accidents?

Car accidents are very common. Although there can be discrepancies over who was at-fault, most at-fault accidents are clearly caused by a specific driver. Here are some of the most common accidents where one driver is at-fault:

  • Hitting a car from behind
  • Running a stop light
  • Failing to signal
  • Colliding with a stationary object
  • Backing up without looking

Rarely do these situations involve negligence from any other driver. If you are clearly responsible for an accident, it’s unlikely that either insurance company will assign blame to another driver. Instead of fighting with the insurance company, it’s best to accept blame and pay your insurance deductible to cover the other party’s damages.

Fighting traffic accidents when one driver is obviously responsible usually doesn’t lead to any payout. Additionally, you can expect to spend a significant amount of money on legal fees and court costs.

Bottom line

Car accidents happen often, but determining who was at-fault isn’t always easy. If you’re in a car accident, the most important thing you can do is document the damage and the situation. Explain to your insurance company what happened with as much detail as possible. After sharing your side of the story, let the adjusters go to work.

Most car insurance claims never make it to trial, especially if you live in a no-fault state. If you find yourself facing a lawsuit, understand the three rules the court can use to make a decision: pure contributory negligence, pure comparative negligence and modified pure comparative negligence. Although legal fees can be expensive, your auto insurance policy will help you cover some or all of the cost with your liability coverage.

Elizabeth Rivelli
Elizabeth Rivelli
Contributing Writer

Elizabeth is a contributor to The Simple Dollar, where she reviews insurance providers and policies. She has more than three years of experience writing for top online insurance and finance publications, including Bankrate, Coverage.com and Reviews.com.

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