Who Is at Fault in a Rear End Collision?

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Most drivers believe that when a rear-end collision occurs, the trailing driver that strikes the other vehicle from behind is always at fault. This is true to an extent; a trailing driver has a responsibility to leave adequate space behind a leading vehicle to allow for enough to time to stop or change lanes and avoid hitting the leading vehicle should the leading driver suddenly slow down or stop. If a driver hits another from behind, the assumption is that at least partial liability for the accident falls to the trailing driver. However, it is possible the leading driver or a third party could absorb liability as well.

Leaving Space Between Vehicles

A good rule of thumb for drivers is to leave at least one car length worth of space behind a leading vehicle. While traveling at 30 mph behind another driver the trailing driver should allow three car lengths’ worth of room behind the leading vehicle. This is not always possible, but it is a good guideline when enough room exists, such as on an open highway. At 60 mph, leaving at least six car lengths of space allows the trailing driver enough time to slow down and respond to a leading driver’s actions.

A leading driver may need to suddenly stop, slow down, or swerve to avoid all types of hazards. Road debris, wildlife, and other sudden changes may cause a driver to reflexively hit the brakes. If a trailing driver is too close, he or she will be unable to avoid a collision and will likely incur liability for the leading driver’s damages.

Comparative Negligence in Rear-End Collision Cases

Most states uphold comparative negligence laws that allow plaintiffs to recover compensation when they are partially at fault for the damages in their claim. The states that follow these laws generally require the plaintiff’s level of fault to be lower than the defendant’s level to qualify for compensation, and then the net award for the case reduces by the plaintiff’s fault percentage. For example, in a $20,000 claim for a rear-end collision in which the jury finds the plaintiff 10% at fault, he or she loses $2,000 or 10% of the case award to reflect his or her comparative negligence.

In some cases, a leading driver may take legal action against a trailing driver who hit his or her vehicle without realizing the leading driver is actually responsible. For example, if a leading vehicle’s brake lights malfunctioned, it would be very difficult for a trailing driver to detect a sudden decrease in speed without seeing the leading vehicle’s brake lights. If the leading driver knew about the faulty brake lights and continued driving without fixing them, it is highly likely the majority of liability for the accident would fall to the leading driver instead.

The trailing driver could avoid absorbing liability for a rear-end collision in many other possible ways. If a leading driver suddenly stops or reverses without enough time for a trailing driver to react, this could lead to an accident. Attempting to execute a turn and then failing to do so or continuing to drive with a flat tire could also cause accidents.

Contributory Negligence

Only a handful of states still follow contributory negligence laws. Under such laws, a plaintiff cannot recover compensation for damages if he or she bears any amount of liability for the accident in question. For example, if a leading driver had malfunctioning brake lights but the jury finds the trailing driver failed to leave adequate distance between the vehicles, the trailing driver could absorb partial liability and lose the right to compensation.

Regardless of the negligence laws in your state, talk with a West Virginia car accident attorney if you or a loved one sustain injuries in a rear-end collision as either the leading or trailing driver. Depending on the unique factors of your incident, you could potentially avoid expensive liability and prove the fault of the other driver with an attorney’s help.