An accident can happen when another vehicle pulls out in front of yours unexpectedly, leaving you little time to steer clear of a collision. In the aftermath of that sort of crash, you may wonder about who was at fault. On one hand, your vehicle hit the one in front of you, which can make you feel like you are to blame. On the other hand, the driver of the vehicle you hit should have seen you coming, and shouldn’t have made the dangerous decision to pull out in front of you.
Here’s how an experienced lawyer approaches the task of determining who was at fault in an accident where someone pulled out in front of you, and how a lawyer can help you secure the compensation you deserve for injuries and losses you suffered.
Why Finding Fault After an Accident (Usually) Matters
There’s nothing pleasant about getting into a car accident, especially when someone pulls out in front of you. Having to go through the process of figuring out who was at fault can feel like adding insult to injury. Do we really need to go through it?
Frustrating as it may feel, we usually do (although not always—more on that later).
Fault plays a central role in the United States civil justice system and the insurance industry that Americans use to manage the risk of liability for an accident or injury. At the most basic level, we assign fault for an accident because we collectively believe that a person should pay for the harm caused by his or her careless or otherwise wrongful actions, but not for harm that occurred through circumstances beyond his or her ability to control.
In the law, fault is inextricably linked to the notion of causation. A party deemed at fault is usually one whose actions proximately (or, closely in time, space, or sequence of events) caused an accident. Fault also has an intimate connection to our collective understanding of reasonableness. We are more likely to find a person at fault for an accident if the person’s unreasonable actions caused it than we are to find fault with someone who engaged in reasonable actions leading up to an accident.
Courts and insurance companies rely on the concept of fault to assign liability and to allocate payment obligations between parties to an accident. They tend to speak of fault in terms of percentages, in recognition of the fact that the actions of multiple parties can contribute to an accident’s cause. For example, the law allows for one driver to be found 75 percent at fault, and the other 25 percent at fault, in a two-car accident.
Finding Fault in “No-Fault” States
One problem with relying on finding fault to determine liability and to allocate damages, however, is that it’s often an expensive and time-consuming process. Lawyers and insurance adjusters may need to investigate facts, collect evidence, and interview witnesses. Their findings may lead to lengthy legal documents, and may trigger the involvement of arbitrators, mediators, judges, and juries.
In some states, such as Florida, legislators and insurance companies have concluded that all that effort to find fault isn’t worth the trouble in most car accidents involving relatively small dollar amounts of damages. Instead, laws passed in those states require all drivers to purchase personal injury protection (PIP) insurance, also referred to as “no-fault” insurance. PIP insurance protects drivers against the costs of their own injuries and disabilities suffered in an accident, regardless of whose fault the accident was. Drivers don’t sue each other for payment for their injuries, in other words, they simply turn to their own PIP policies.
From the perspective of an accident victim, “no-fault” insurance eliminates the need for finding fault in all but the worst accidents that result in serious injuries or fatalities (in which case, fault again takes center-stage in deciding who should pay whom for pain and suffering and other non-economic damages). However, that does not mean that PIP insurance makes the concept of fault moot. Insurers almost always have the right to seek compensation from each other based on whose fault an accident was, through a legal concept known as subrogation.
Who Decides Fault After an Accident?
You were driving along, safely, when someone suddenly pulled out in front of you. Despite slamming the brakes, you could not stop in time. The accident left you, and the driver of the other car, badly injured. So, who gets to decide which of you was at fault, or what your percentage of fault was compared to the other driver’s?
Does a Police Accident Report Determine Fault?
Police officers commonly respond to the scene of an accident, especially if someone suffers injuries. While there, they collect information by interviewing witnesses and making observations. Days later, they issue an accident report, which may include the officer’s impression of who was at fault in the accident.
Is that the last word on fault? In a word, no. The accident report reflects one person’s opinion. That person is a police officer, so the opinion might carry some weight with insurance companies, but it doesn’t settle the issue.
Do Lawyers Determine Fault?
Lawyers for parties to an accident form opinions about fault, but they do not have the authority to decide the question. Their job, instead, is to collect evidence and make arguments about who bears the blame for causing an accident, usually the goal of proving that someone other than their client was at fault.
Does an Insurance Company Determine Fault?
Insurance plays a role in virtually every car accident. Insurance companies use fault as a way to decide whether to pay claims against insurance policies issued to policyholders. They assign adjusters to investigate accidents and collect evidence, to help them make that decision. So, in a sense, yes, insurance companies determine fault.
However, their determination is not binding. If you disagree with an insurance company’s decision about fault, you typically have the option of taking the insurance company to court.
Ultimately, Judges and Juries Determine Fault.
In other words, the only final authorities on the question of fault are courts, specifically judges and juries tasked with hearing the evidence about an accident and deciding who bears the blame. Courts possess the power to ignore the opinions of police officers, and to overrule the decisions of insurance companies. The ability to make a full, final resolution of the question of fault rests exclusively with them if the parties ask them to resolve it.
What Goes Into Deciding Fault?
Now that we’ve covered the why, what, and who of fault, let’s get back to the question at the top of this blog—Are you at fault if someone pulls out in front of you?—and explore how that question gets answered.
In the simplest and most obvious sense, you figure out fault by looking at what happened. In other words, what chain of events led to your car colliding with the one that pulled out in front of you? A careful examination of that sequence of events and the setting in which they happened can reveal the factors that caused the crash to happen, and who bears responsibility for them.
For example, to figure out fault in a crash where someone pulls out in front of you, we may need to know:
- How fast each of you was traveling.
- Whether either of you failed to stop at a stop sign or red light.
- Whether either of you could have, and should have, seen the other coming in time to avoid an accident.
- Whether your car functioned properly, even though it ultimately collided with the other.
None of these (and countless other) factors necessarily decides the question of fault on its own. Instead, we take them in together as a whole and evaluate how they affect our view of causation and reasonableness.
For example, the fact that you were exceeding the speed limit by a couple of miles per hour just before the accident might seem to weigh against you, but it might not matter in deciding fault if the other driver blew a stop sign and never even bothered to look in your direction before pulling out. Alternatively, if you would have had plenty of time to slow down when the other driver pulled out in front of you, if it hadn’t been for your brakes suddenly failing, then fault might not lie with either of you, but instead with the manufacturer of your car’s defective brakes.
Finding fault, in other words, is a multi-faceted, fact-intensive inquiry. It depends on subtle distinctions and on somewhat subjective views of what constitutes reasonable conduct under a given set of circumstances, and about how one event leads to another in a predictable chain.
So, we can’t rightly say if you are at fault if someone pulls out in front of you, at least not without knowing a lot more about what happened. Maybe you are at fault. Maybe you’re not. Maybe you and the other driver share fault equally, or maybe the other driver deserves most of the blame and you deserve just a little.
In all cases, however, the most reliable way to find out who is at fault for an accident is to contact an experienced car accident injury lawyer as soon as possible after a crash, so that the lawyer can put years of collected knowledge and know-how to work investigating the facts, collecting evidence, and evaluating who should bear the blame for what happened.
Potential Compensation If the Other Driver Was At Fault
Say that your lawyer investigates the facts and concludes that the driver who pulled out in front of you was at fault. What then?
As for so many questions that arise in car accident cases, the answer depends on the facts and circumstances, and what your lawyer thinks is the best path forward for serving your interests.
In general, however, your lawyer may conclude that you have the right to take legal action seeking compensation from the at-fault driver and that driver’s liability insurance carrier for:
- The costs of treating your injuries.
- Out-of-pocket expenses the accident and injuries caused.
- Wages and income you did not or will not earn because of your injuries.
- Your pain and suffering, including the negative impact the accident and injuries had on your quality of life.
If the act of pulling out in front of you constituted an extreme or intentionally harmful action on the part of the other driver, your lawyer might also ask a court to order the driver to pay punitive damages, which aim to punish that conduct.
What Should You Do After Crashing Into Someone Who Pulls Out in Front of You?
The steps you take after getting into an accident with someone who pulls out in front of you can affect your legal rights.
Report the Accident
Call law enforcement to the scene of any accident resulting in potential injuries or property damages. Police and EMTs can render aid, collect information, and create a report that contains the essential facts of what happened. Failure to call the police may violate your legal obligations as a driver.
Seek Medical Care
Let an EMT check you over at the scene. Go to the emergency room if necessary. Get a check-up within 24 hours after the accident, even if you feel “ok”. Some potentially serious injuries, like brain trauma and organ damage, may not show symptoms immediately but could become life-threatening if left untreated. Also, seeking medical care creates medical records, which can serve as important evidence in a legal action for damages.
Call a Car Accident Attorney Near You
As soon as physically possible after a car accident, contact a car accident lawyer near you for a free consultation to discuss what happened, who might be at fault, and how to move forward in obtaining the compensation you deserve for your injuries and losses.