Determining liability is one of the most critical aspects of ensuring that you receive insurance benefits, a settlement, or court-awarded damages after a car accident. However, proving fault often proves difficult for investigators, insurance adjusters, and the police. Making matters worse, not all drivers tell the truth about the events leading up to a car accident, because they do not want to admit fault and automatically take on financial responsibility for the accident.
In other cases, drivers have poor driving records and want to avoid losing their licenses, paying hefty fines, facing higher insurance premiums, or losing their jobs, so those drivers are motivated to “forget” what happened.
A car accident is a costly event for the at-fault party, especially when someone suffers injuries or dies, making it especially important to accurately assign fault. You shouldn’t have to take the blame for a car accident just because another driver or party fails to tell the truth. Insurance adjusters, investigators, and police use several methods and collect different types of evidence to determine liability.
If you were in a car accident, consult an experienced car accident lawyer who can uncover the facts of your case and help you maximize your compensation when you aren’t at fault. Below we provide a broad overview of the tools and evidence used to tell who is at fault in a car accident.
Evidence From Photographs
Before everyone had a smartphone with a camera, police came to the scene of car accidents and took notes about the accident to fill out an official accident report. At one point, law enforcement officials took pictures with 35 mm cameras, but they eventually upgraded to handheld digital cameras. Police officers couldn’t take photos until they arrived at the scene. Depending on the situation, the accident scene sometimes changes significantly before law enforcement arrives.
For example, when car accidents occur on a busy highway or street, physically able drivers have to move their vehicles out of traffic. Also, sometimes anxious drivers and potential witnesses leave the scene of the accident.
Today’s smartphones have amazing digital cameras, and almost everyone has one. Drivers, passengers, and eyewitnesses who physically can usually start to take pictures immediately after an accident occurs, providing valuable evidence to help determine fault. Photographic evidence alone is generally not dispositive as to the issue of fault, but pictures help support other evidence by making it easier for the police and insurance adjusters to decide liability.
For example, pictures may include potential eyewitnesses or show the location of video cameras at a nearby business. Individuals involved in severe car accidents typically do not have the opportunity to take pictures, because they are often too injured or unconscious from the impact of the crash. If you are involved in a car accident, and you can physically take pictures, photographing the scene of the accident should be one of your first concerns after making sure someone calls for help. The sooner you take photos, the less of a chance you have for the scene to change.
Some evidence your photos might reveal that will help determine who is at fault includes:
- Tire marks from vehicles skidding after they slammed on their brakes before the collision
- Hazards, animals, road defects, or any other item that caused a vehicle to lose control
- Empty bottles or cans of beer or other evidence of alcohol or drug use that suggests a driver was under the influence
- Oil, gas, water, or other fluids that leaked from a vehicle, suggesting that mechanical failure led to a collision
Evidence From Video Surveillance and Video Recordings From Cell Phones
Video evidence is also useful to determine fault for a car accident, and oftentimes, video evidence is better than photographic evidence. Some drivers install cameras on their dashboards. If you do not have a dashcam to provide video evidence, another driver nearby or involved in the accident might have one.
Traffic cameras are gaining popularity throughout the United States. Additionally, many restaurants, shops, gas stations, banks, and other businesses have video surveillance on the outside of their property. Depending on the exact angle and location of your accident, security camera footage from a business might capture an accident and definitively show who was at fault.
Police officers typically exhaust all of these potential sources of evidence, but sometimes they do not follow through. An experienced car accident lawyer will request security camera footage and thoroughly investigate your accident to gather the evidence that you need to support your case.
Sometimes, witnesses take a video of a car accident intentionally or accidentally. In either case, if a passerby stops at the scene of a car accident you are involved in and offers you a smartphone video, make sure to accept it and share it with your lawyer. A skilled attorney can review the video and evaluate whether it is useful for your car accident case.
Vehicle Damage Helps Determine Fault
Insurance adjusters, investigators, and police officers will meticulously examine any vehicle damage and its location to help determine who is at fault in a car accident. Traffic accidents between two or more cars usually involve vehicles traveling a certain direction at a certain speed.
Different combinations of speed and direction lead to different damage locations and different types of damage during a collision. This information allows you, or anyone else, to conclude how a car accident happened. Sometimes, damage clearly demonstrates fault.
For example, a careless driver who is not paying attention to the road and strikes the car in front of them, causing a rear-end collision. The damage at the front of the rear vehicle and at the rear of the lead vehicle clearly shows how the accident occurred and that the driver in the rear was at fault. This is a simple example in which liability is fairly obvious.
Other times, fault is not as obvious, but the location of the damage helps. At the very least, law enforcement can eliminate many potential narratives about what occurred because the damage simply doesn’t match up to the story. Keep in mind that one car striking another does not automatically mean that one driver is at fault. For example, a driver may strike another vehicle by running a stop sign or a red light. Lawyers and investigators will examine who had the right of way to help determine who is at fault in such an accident.
Rust Patterns and Paint Transfer to Other Vehicle
When less than honest drivers deny responsibility for a car accident, law enforcement and insurance investigators analyze paint chips, paint transfers, and rust patterns on each vehicle involved in an accident to determine fault. Some new vehicles do not have rust, and some cars were in one or more previous collisions.
If you find yourself in a situation where another driver accuses you of hitting his or her vehicle, and you know you did not, the driver is likely trying to receive compensation for damage and/or injuries from a previous accident. Rust patterns reveal whether an accident actually occurred. During a traffic accident, paint transfers between vehicles and chips off. Police can examine these patterns to help determine whether an accident occurred, how it occurred, and who is likely at fault.
Statements From Eyewitnesses
If you are physically able, you should try to get contact information from any witnesses as soon as possible. Eyewitness accounts of an accident are powerful evidence that may support your narrative and law enforcement’s account of how the car accident occurred. Eyewitnesses do not always have every single fact or detail of a car accident, but their statements may help to fill gaps.
Keep in mind that not all eyewitnesses are created equal. A witness under the influence of drugs or alcohol may lack credibility. Additionally, eyewitnesses must willingly testify in your case, and sometimes witnesses aren’t available due to personal or professional reasons. Eyewitness testimony typically does not wholly determine fault in a car accident, but it does offer critical support to the police report and other evidence, helping with questions about financial liability.
Data From an EDR
Most new vehicles come standard with an event data recorder (EDR), which records information from the vehicle’s most recent crash. An EDR is akin to a flight data recorder (FDR), more commonly called a black box, found on aircraft. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) almost made them mandatory in all passenger cars and trucks, but auto manufacturers decided to automatically put them in new vehicles, rendering the requirement unnecessary. Like FDRs, EDRs record information leading up to an accident, during an accident, and after an accident.
Examples of data found in an EDR include:
- The state of the vehicle and the status of systems before a collision
- Inputs made by the driver
- Vehicle crash signature
- Whether the driver and passengers were wearing seatbelts
- Whether the airbag deployed
- Whether a collision activated the vehicle’s automatic collision notification system
Police investigators and insurance companies use collision data from EDRs to assist in determining how car accidents happened and who is to blame. Many motorists are unaware that they have EDRs in their cars and trucks, making it next to impossible for a driver to lie about how a car accident occurred.
Expert Analysis From Accident Reconstruction Specialists
Police departments, law firms, and insurance carriers sometimes rely on accident reconstruction to determine fault in a car accident. This is especially true when severe or fatal accidents occur. An accident reconstruction specialist takes a scientific approach to analyze an accident. These specialists’ ultimate goal is to find out how an accident occurred and its cause(s).
Accident reconstruction experts have had ample training in engineering and physics. They rely on many kinds of data when hired by law enforcement, legal firms, and insurance companies. Many times they rely on some of the tools listed above.
Whether an accident reconstructionist uses EDR data from a collision or obtains additional data, some information that he or she will typically rely on includes:
- The location where vehicles involved in a crash ended up
- Evidence from the scene of the accident, including road conditions, road hazards, and any skid marks
- Vehicle damage
- The speed at which each vehicle was traveling when the accident occurred
- Crash severity
- Driver visibility in terms of weather and blockage in the light of sight
- Other driver factors, including distracted driving and alcohol use
When experts evaluate and analyze the data listed above after a car accident, they make determinations about fault and provide their expert opinions to the party that hired them. In the vast majority of car accident cases that involve an accident reconstruction specialist, he or she serves as an expert witness who testifies in court.
Determining fault in a car accident is rarely an easy task. Investigators, insurance adjusters, and law enforcement officials use many different tools and types of evidence together to figure out who is at fault.
If you sustained serious injuries, contact a skilled car accident attorney with the experience and resources to properly investigate your accident can build a strong case against the right party or parties, and you can get the compensation you deserve. You shouldn’t have to suffer the financial consequences of a car accident on top of the physical pain of injury and recovery when another party is at fault.
Michael T. Gibson, P.A., Auto Justice Attorney
2420 S. Lakemont Avenue
Orlando, FL 32814