What is an at-fault accident?If you get into an auto accident, one of the most important things your insurance company will want to determine is which party is “at fault” for the accident. Given this, fault is perhaps the most critical aspect of auto insurance claims, and a concept with which auto policyholders will want to be familiar. But what is an at-fault accident? Read below as we discuss it in detail, along with the process by which fault is determined.

Defining fault

In abstract terms, fault is a pretty simple concept to understand. Fault refers to the degree to which a specific individual (or “party,” in insurance terms) is responsible for an accident. Individuals can either be “at-fault” or “not at fault” for a given accident. In certain types of accidents, fault is relatively cut and dry – like in many rear-end collisions. In these types of accidents, the vehicle whose front bumper is colliding with the other car’s rear is usually at-fault, while the car being rear-ended is not at fault. Determining fault in other cases, though, can be a bit less straightforward. Fault is usually broken down into percentages. Parties whose percentage of fault exceeds that of the other parties in an accident can be considered “mostly at fault.” Other times, the percentage breakdown may be more along the lines of 50/50, making it “partial fault” or “shared fault.”

How is responsibility determined in an at-fault accident?

Insurance companies make fault determinations based on a wide combination of sources. First and foremost, any police reports about the scene of the accident are going to be instrumental, as well as statements from any potential witnesses who were near the scene at the time of the accident. Other information, like photos of the scene, reports from auto mechanics and details about injuries or medical visits, might also be used by insurance companies in their determination, especially in an era where social media is so prevalent. This is why it’s of the utmost importance that you remain consistent in your claims with your description of the accident as well as any damages or injuries you might have suffered. If you claim you were T-boned when the at-fault party’s front bumper hit your vehicle, and recent photos of their car show no frontal damage, then you could be flagged for fraud. Keep in mind that photos and other evidence can also help you prove that you were not at fault for an accident.

What happens after fault is determined?

State law is perhaps the most crucial factor that influences the consequence of fault determinations. For example, take laws around negligence, which ultimately affect the obligations of an insured party with regard to their percentage of fault. States with “pure contributory negligence” demand that if a party has any degree of fault (e.g., anything above 0%), that party cannot recover any damages whatsoever, as they contributed to the accident to some degree. In states with “pure comparative negligence,” on the other hand, parties are able to recover damages proportional to their percentage of fault. Essentially, the more fault they have, the less compensation they’re eligible for (so if you’re determined to be 98% at fault, you are eligible for no more than 2% compensation). Finally, a number of states have “modified comparative negligence,” which allows for either one of two options – the 50% Bar Rule and the 51% Bar Rule. In states observing the former, parties whose fault doesn’t exceed 49% can be compensated for damages, while in states that observe the latter, that cap is at 50%. Note that in both cases, compensation is again proportional to the percentage, or degree, of fault.

Aside from negligence, other types of state laws can influence fault. For example, there exist so-called “no-fault” states, where mandatory personal injury protection (PIP) will pay for harm or injury caused by an accident, regardless of who is at fault. In these no-fault states, medical expenses and personal injuries are paid by each respective party’s insurance company, up to a certain threshold. Compensation for non-medical damages, however, might still be subject to negligence laws to determine an individual’s degree of fault.

For more information about auto insurance and advice to help you get the most out of your policy, keep reading our auto insurance blog.