Understanding the Rules of the Road: Who Is at Fault in a Rear End Collision?

Rear-end collisions are the most frequent type of car accident case in the US involving another vehicle. In 2021, they accounted for 41.7 percent of all crashes, with 39.6 percent resulting in injuries. According to the NHTSA, 28.7 percent of rear-end crashes in 2020 resulted in property damage.

You should know your legal rights if you sustain injuries in an accident. Establishing who is at fault in a rear-end collision is helpful if you want compensation.

Most US states hold the at-fault driver responsible for damages to accident victims. Compensation typically covers medical bills, lost income, pain and suffering, and property damage.

Parties involved in a car accident may go through litigation to establish fault and the appropriate amount of compensation. If a loved one dies in an accident, you may need to file a wrongful death lawsuit.

The trailing driver is usually at fault in rear-end accidents, and most injuries are not severe. As a result, many of these cases end in out-of-court settlements with the insurance company.

Whether you go to court or negotiate with insurance companies, the primary goal is to cover your losses. You don’t need a car accident lawyer to get compensation for your injuries. However, insurance companies will do their best to minimize their payouts, potentially offering less than you deserve. Sometimes, they might even try to deny your claim by placing the blame on you.

An experienced personal injury lawyer can give sound legal advice and establish fault for a rear-end collision. A reputable law firm has the resources necessary to build a strong compensation case.

Key Takeaways
  • Determining fault in a rear-end collision is critical when bringing a personal injury lawsuit.
  • The presumption of fault does not always apply in rear-end car accidents.
  • Being the trailing driver doesn’t make you liable. Your lawyer may be able to prove the lead driver is at fault.

Overview of Rear-End Collisions

A rear-end collision happens when a car crashes into another car in front of it. It is the only accident type that has nothing to do with yielding the right of way. Common causes include speeding, distracted driving, and tailgating. In some cases, a rear-end collision may happen due to slick roads, insufficient tire traction, or brake failure.

Rear-end collisions are quite common and generally not fatal. While they account for the highest number of crashes, they only contribute to 17.9 percent of fatalities in crashes with other vehicles. In comparison, angle or side-impact collisions cause 44.8 percent of deaths.

However, rear-end collisions often result in injuries. In 2021, they were responsible for 37.7 percent of all injuries reported in accidents involving two or more vehicles. The severity of the damage often depends on the speed and similarity of the vehicles at the time of impact. For example, suppose a car traveling at 30 mph crashes into a smaller vehicle at a stop light. The impact would be enough to cause severe damage to the occupants of the lead car.

On the other hand, suppose the rear driver manages to stop and hits the lead vehicle at about five mph. It is likely that no injuries will result, although there may be property damage.

Other factors may also affect the extent of harm. For example, some vehicles, like minivans, have short crumple zones. As such, passengers at the very back are likely to sustain the worst injuries in rear-end crashes.

Whiplash is the most frequent personal injury resulting from light to moderate-impact collisions. Other injuries include contusions, concussions, traumatic brain injury, herniation, and fractures. Some injuries may resolve without intervention, while others might require extensive medical treatment.

The at-fault driver is typically responsible for the losses sustained by accident victims. The trick is determining who is at fault in a rear-end collision. While the rear driver is usually responsible, that is not always the case, as you will soon learn.

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Determining Fault in a Rear-End Collision

Determining fault in a rear-end collision might seem easy, but that is not always true. While most rear-end car accidents are straightforward, there are factors to consider that might complicate an injury claim.

Presumption of negligence

The rear driver is responsible in most cases because they should’ve had enough time to brake. State law typically requires drivers to follow another vehicle at a sufficient distance to prevent a crash. 

Consider Section 484B.127 of the Nevada Revised Statutes, for instance. It states drivers “shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent.” The same language can be found in Section 21-310 of the Code of Maryland. In other words, motorists should always maintain a safe following distance. Otherwise, they will be liable for accidents.

Violating these rules may result in fines, demerits on your license, or both. However, an experienced car accident lawyer can help you avoid a citation. Nevertheless, you may still be liable for any injuries under the presumption of fault or negligence.

The presumption of negligence, or res ipsa loquitur, is a principle of tort law that infers negligence from technically circumstantial evidence. In rear-end collisions, the plaintiff can make a prima facie (at first sight) case because the driver was in the rear.

The idea is that the defendant controlled the vehicle and acted negligently, causing the incident. However, the plaintiff must not have contributed to the cause in any way. An excellent example of a res ipsa loquitur is a car being hit from behind while stopped in traffic. The rear driver may have been texting at the time, which would explain, but not excuse, the accident.  

When the rear driver is not at fault

However, there are situations where the rear driver may not be at fault. For example, the lead driver accelerated in reverse and collided with your vehicle. You can prove this with witnesses or through the event data recorder of the lead car.

Another scenario is when a vehicle defect causes an accident, such as the sudden, unintended acceleration issue with some Toyota models. A pileup can also complicate matters as it involves multiple drivers with varying levels of fault.

A malfunctioning turn signal or brake light can also make the lead driver liable. Motorists are responsible for maintaining their vehicles in good working order, including ensuring the proper functioning of warning lights.

When both drivers are at fault

There may also be cases when both drivers share fault. Suppose the drivers are engaging in aggressive behavior toward each other, and the lead driver slams on the brakes, causing a collision. In this case, one driver was brake-checking while the other was tailgating. Both actions are a form of negligence and will be considered when determining fault.

When the weather or road is bad

Sometimes, weather or road conditions cause accidents. Rain or snow can make roads slippery, reducing traction and making it difficult to stop on time. Potholes or debris on the road can force a motorist to stop suddenly or make an illegal lane change, causing the trailing driver to hit them.

Contributory Negligence

A plaintiff can recover damages for personal injury by proving the four elements of negligence. These elements are duty owed, breach of duty, direct causation, and harm suffered. For example, suppose a driver was tailgating and hit the car it was following because of a defective brake. In that case, the lead motorist can recover damages from the tailgating motorist and brake manufacturer. Even if the lead driver had a broken taillight at the time of the accident, they may still file a claim.

However, under the all-or-nothing rule of contributory negligence, a plaintiff cannot file a claim if they are at fault. This rule bars them from recovery even if the defendants are 99 percent responsible because of their negligent actions.

Contributory negligence is a tort rule based on common law, meaning courts established it over time. Its purpose is to simplify the assignment of fault in a personal injury lawsuit. The case has no legal standing if the plaintiff bears any responsibility for the accident.

States using contributory negligence often introduce exceptions to give plaintiffs some flexibility, such as the last clear chance doctrine. This argument allows an at-fault plaintiff to recover damages if they can prove the defendant could have prevented harm.

An example would be a lead motorist abruptly slamming on the brakes in a rear-end collision. The plaintiff’s personal injury attorney could argue that the defendant should have been able to stop in time to avoid the accident.

Four states and the District of Columbia apply contributory negligence rules: Maryland, Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia. Most states have adopted a less stringent rule in determining legal standing based on fault, known as comparative negligence.

Comparative Negligence

Comparative negligence is a tort principle used to determine the proportion of damages based on fault for negligent-based cases. Its purpose is to make the process fair by equitably dividing the costs of responsibility among the negligent parties. It may or may not include the plaintiff in the fault assignment.

However, the plaintiff’s degree of fault can affect their compensation or legal standing. Under pure comparative negligence, the court reduces the damages a plaintiff can recover proportionate to their responsibility.

Suppose the court assigns the plaintiff 99 percent liability for a rear-end accident. The plaintiff will receive one percent of the court award. This principle applies in states such as New York, California, and, until March 24, 2023, Florida.

Under modified comparative negligence, the same case would bar the plaintiff from recovery. Depending on the state, the plaintiff must be less than 50 or 51 percent responsible for the cause of action. Most states use the modified version of the rule, including Florida.

As you can imagine, merely identifying who is at fault in a rear-end crash is not enough. You must also ensure any responsibility you may have does not bar you from recovery. This requires solid evidence and the powers of persuasion of your personal injury lawyer.

Other Factors To Consider

Filing a personal injury lawsuit is not the only way to recover your losses in a negligent car accident. Most cases end in an insurance settlement, especially when the claim is within the policy limits.  

However, the ease of recovery in rear-end collisions depends on whether your state is a fault or a no-fault system. Fault states require injured victims to prove the other driver was responsible for filing an insurance claim.

In contrast, determining who is at fault is unnecessary in no-fault states as you file a claim with your insurance. Regardless of the state’s system, you could benefit from a car accident lawyer negotiating on your behalf to maximize compensation.

However, suppose the at-fault party is an employee of the government or commercial entity at the time of the accident. You will need to consider the rules of vicarious liability, or respondeat superior, that apply in your state.

In most cases, the employee and employer are liable under the joint and several liability doctrine. If the employer cannot pay what they owe, the employer must make up the difference. For example, Section 4.22.040 of the Revised Code of Washington sets out the conditions where joint and several liability applies.

You can sue the federal or state government if their employee caused an accident, but the process involves additional hurdles. Provided you can prove negligence, the tort claims laws on the federal and state levels impose many restrictions. An example includes a shorter statute of limitations.

For instance, the Federal Tort Claims Act gives plaintiffs six months to file a claim against an Environmental Protection Agency employee. Moreover, it is the EPA that decides to approve or deny a claim, not the civil court.

Pro Tip

The best way to avoid a rear-end collision is to follow the “three-second rule.” Pick a stationary object on the road and wait for the vehicle in front to pass it. You should be able to count three seconds before reaching the same object.

Get Compensation From Who Is at Fault in a Rear-End Collision

Determining fault in a rear-end collision might seem straightforward, but many factors can complicate it. Understanding fault for rear-end accidents in the proper context will establish your legal standing and compensation when filing a claim.

A careful and comprehensive investigation of these factors will help you make the proper claim and name the correct defendants. However, it can be challenging to do without the resources and expertise of a car accident lawyer. Consult one to navigate the process effectively.

Make it easy on yourself by visiting The Personal Injury Center. We provide legal information and a free consultation to match you with competent personal injury lawyers in your state. Don’t waste time, as the statute of limitations might run out on your case.

Determining who is at fault in a car accident can be complex. Book a free consultation to find an experienced rear-end accident attorney to help.

FAQs on Who Is at Fault in a Rear-End Collision

Aside from the location of the impact, the main difference lies in the amount of passenger protection. Generally, the structure of most cars offers more robust protection in the rear than on the sides. Consequently, more fatalities result from a side than a rear-end collision. 

As the trailing driver, the best way to avoid a rear-end collision is to keep your eyes on the road and follow at a safe distance. Both will give you enough time to react to anything unexpected and prevent accidents.

Section 21703 of the California Vehicle Code requires drivers to follow another vehicle safely and prudently. Additionally, they must have due regard for the other vehicle's speed, traffic conditions, and the roadway.