How Is Fault Determined in a Car Accident?

How Is Fault Determined in a Car Accident?

Being involved in a car accident is never a good thing. The possibility of injury to you or your passengers and the damages to your car can often be serious. Even fender benders, however minor, can leave drivers rattled and agitated.

The latest numbers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration come from 2018. In that year, over 6.7 million car accidents took place in the United States. Almost two million of those led to injuries to one or more people involved in the accident.

And all those accidents can be quite costly. In 2018, auto insurers paid more than $91.7 million to cover liability costs for private auto insurance policyholders and paid an extra $58.7 million to cover physical damages. In the same year, the average claim size for a car with collision insurance was $3,574 — a hefty sum, and one that would help significantly in paying for car repairs or the treatment of minor injuries. If you are not at fault in an accident, it’s especially likely that you’ll want to receive a sizeable insurance payout to cover your expenses.

Determining fault in an accident can be quite contentious. The process for determining fault in a car accident in Pennsylvania, however, involves different ramifications than in other states.

The reason is that Pennsylvania is technically a “no-fault state,” although, in reality, it’s more of a hybrid state because drivers can choose to carry no-fault insurance or fault-based insurance. Puerto Rico and twelve states use no-fault systems:

  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Pennsylvania
  • Utah

Three of those states — Kentucky, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — are choice no-fault states, so drivers may select either type of policy.

This means if you must file a lawsuit after a wreck, you will not be suing either the other driver or their insurance company. You will actually be suing your own insurance carrier because you feel they are not providing you with the proper amount of coverage.

Quick Questions

How Does Insurance Work in a No-Fault State?

To drive legally in Pennsylvania, individuals must purchase and maintain the required amount of car insurance. A driver can choose to carry no-fault insurance or liability coverage. No-fault insurance is also known as limited tort coverage and is less expensive but does not cover pain-and-suffering. Liability coverage, or full tort, covers all costs including pain-and-suffering but is more expensive.

This limited tort coverage includes personal injury protection (PIP) and liability property damage. If you are involved in an accident in Pennsylvania and are hurt, your insurance is supposed to pay for your medical expenses up to a certain amount.

Minimum coverage levels under no-fault insurance are:

  • $5,000 for medical costs
  • $15,000 and $30,000 for bodily liability coverage ($15,000 for injuries for one person, a total of $30,000 for one accident)
  • A minimum of $5,000 for property damage liability.

People may choose to carry more coverage including numerous other options such as uninsured or underinsured motorist coverage, towing coverage, rental coverage or comprehensive coverage, to name a few.

Property damage, however, is still based on fault, which is why drivers are required to carry liability property damage coverage. This means the cost of any repairs to your vehicle that are needed should be covered by the insurance company of the at-fault driver.

Why No-Fault Insurance?

The idea behind no-fault insurance sprang from the fact that many states wanted people who were injured in car accidents to be paid more quickly, rather than waiting for lawyers and insurance companies to decide who was responsible. So rather than having to prove to your insurance company who was at fault, your insurance company will pay regardless of who was at fault. This is the idea behind PIP. PIP may also cover any passengers injured in an accident.

As convenient as PIP may be for drivers injured in car accidents, PIP seldom provides enough money to cover very serious injuries. So even in a no-fault state, it still might be necessary to prove who was at fault to receive adequate compensation for your injuries.

How Is Fault Determined After a Car Accident?

Most states, including Pennsylvania, determine who is responsible for an accident by determining which driver was careless or negligent. Someone is negligent when they either do something that a reasonable person would not do or fail to do something that a reasonable person would do under similar circumstances. If a driver is negligent, then they are at least partially at fault for the accident that resulted from that negligence.

Sometimes this is easy to determine. If a driver runs a red light and hits another car, they are clearly negligent. Or if a driver runs into the rear of another vehicle while it is stopped, that is a simple example of negligence as well. That driver would be responsible for any property damage and additional medical costs beyond what is covered by PIP.

However, how to determine fault in a car accident is not always so clear. Other situations can involve actions by both drivers and can depend on a host of factors to determine fault. Drivers also often disagree about who is at fault. This scenario is further complicated when the police, insurance companies and courts may make different determinations about who was responsible.

How Police Determine Fault

In Pennsylvania, the law requires reporting an accident to the police if there is an injury or death or if the car is so damaged it can’t be driven away from the scene. Minor fender benders do not need to be reported, but it is always in your best interest to do so.

When police are called to the scene of a car accident, they will ask both drivers for their interpretation of how the accident happened. They will also examine the vehicles involved in the accident and interview any witnesses who may have seen what happened.

After the police officer has determined they have enough evidence, they will submit a report. Make sure to ask the police officer for the number of the accident report. This will make it much easier for you and your attorney to locate the police report involving your accident.

The police officer’s report may contain a statement about who, in their professional judgment, was responsible for the accident. In some cases, it may not. It may only contain the facts that the officer has gathered about the case. In either situation, it’s important to know that even if a police report says that the other driver was responsible for an accident, the report is considered hearsay evidence and likely not admissible in a court.

Police reports can be useful, however, to help your attorney put together a lawsuit or a defense against a lawsuit.

Traffic Citations

What may be more useful are traffic citations. If a police officer issues a traffic citation to a driver for violating a traffic law, especially a citation that requires a driver to appear in traffic court, it may not ultimately prove fault in a car accident but can be used by your lawyer as evidence that the other driver acted in a negligent manner.

How Do Insurance Companies Determine Fault in an Accident?


How insurance companies determine fault in an accident depends partly upon whether the state has a traditional auto insurance liability system or a no-fault insurance system.

For drivers who carry no-fault insurance coverage in Pennsylvania, there is often no need for the insurance company to investigate who was at fault after a car accident. A driver’s own insurance company will pay for medical bills, lost wages and similar expenses regardless of who is at fault.

Insurance companies, however, will still need to determine who is responsible for property damages and severe injuries whose medical costs exceed PIP coverage.

In these situations, the insurance company appoints an adjuster to investigate the accident and any possible settlement of an insurance claim. It’s likely that both insurance companies will appoint adjusters.

Like the police, the adjusters will speak to both drivers and any witnesses, examine medical records, determine vehicle damage and verify coverage amounts of each driver. The adjusters ultimately reach a conclusion about who was at fault, although they may reach different conclusions.

Insurance companies tend to determine responsibility based on their state’s legal definition of negligence.

How Do Courts Determine Who Was at Fault After a Car Accident?

When a driver files a lawsuit to recover costs for damages to their vehicle or if they or their passengers have suffered extensive injuries, courts will determine which driver was negligent. A person is considered negligent when they have failed to exercise reasonable caution in a situation involving an accident.

When your case goes to trial, the judge or jury will listen to arguments from your lawyer and the defendant’s lawyer, as well as any evidence presented. This evidence includes testimony from:

  • Both drivers
  • Any witnesses to the accident
  • The investigating police officer(s)
  • Experts who specialize in accident reconstruction
  • Medical experts

After listening to all the evidence, the judge or jury will then decide who was at fault and determine what damages need to be paid.

What was presented in a police report or any decision that insurance adjudicators reached about who was responsible play little role in determining how a case will be decided. Some evidence cannot be introduced in courts, such as police reports. Precedents from prior cases may also play a role in determining fault.

Pennsylvania’s Modified Comparative Negligence Rule

What happens if both drivers in an accident are negligent? If both drivers are negligent,  then we have a situation we call comparative negligence. We have to compare the negligence of the two drivers and determine how much fault is attributable to each driver. The different levels of fault help determine the amount of the insurance payouts.

In Pennsylvania, legal liability and any damages that result from that liability are awarded using a modified comparative negligence rule. A comparative negligence rule awards damages in proportion to who was responsible for an accident. If the court decides, for instance, that while the other driver may bear the majority of fault in an accident, you were partially responsible, it will reduce any damages you may recover.

Suppose you were rear-ended on the highway, and the crash caused extensive damage to your car and resulted in high medical costs. During the court trial, however, it comes out that your brake lights weren’t working. The driver who hit you should have left enough distance between your car and their car regardless of the situation, but their lawyer may argue that you bear partial responsibility because of the faulty brake lights.

If a court or a jury awards you $100,000 in damages, but they also decide that you were 30% responsible for the accident, you would receive $70,000.

Pennsylvania isn’t just a comparative negligence state. It actually uses a modified form of comparative negligence. Under this modified form, you need to be less than 50% responsible for the accident to receive any compensation. If a court or jury decided that you were even 51% or 52% responsible, regardless of any injuries or damages you may suffer, you would not be able to file a claim against the other driver.

Is There Anything That I Can Do to Help My Case?

Yes, and much of it has to do with what happens at the accident scene. Provided you are not badly injured, gather as much evidence as you can.

  • Speak to any witnesses who may have seen the accident.
  • Take notes about the weather conditions, the conditions of the road and any nearby landmarks that will help you identify the exact location of the accident.
  • Take pictures of both vehicles.

It’s essential that you never admit fault at the scene. Whether you’re speaking with the police or exchanging information with the other driver, never admit fault. Never say something like, “Well, I should’ve been paying more attention,” or “My phone rang just as you came around the corner.” Just state the facts and let the police, the insurance adjusters and the courts decide who is at fault.

Finally, never agreed to give an oral statement to the insurance adjuster of the other driver. An innocent remark can be turned against you in court. If the insurance adjuster asks you to give your version of events and wonders if they can record, you always say no. Or even better, don’t offer opinions about the accident, just refer them to the police report.

How Long Do I Have to File a Lawsuit After a Car Accident in Pennsylvania?

The statute of limitations on a personal injury case — which includes car accidents — is two years. In most cases, the two years begins from the day of the accident. If the car accident results in someone’s death, however, the two years begins from the day that person dies, which may be a different date than the original accident.

Should I Hire a Lawyer After a Car Accident?

Yes, especially if you want to dispute fault in an accident.

If you’re involved in a car accident, and the other driver believes you are at fault, you should report the accident immediately to your insurance company so they can assign an adjuster and then contact a lawyer.

Working with a lawyer is essential when disputing fault in a car accident. A lawyer can help you gather the facts needed to prove that you were not at fault in an accident or that the other driver bears a substantial amount of the blame for the accident which would reduce any judgment against you.

A lawyer can also help you if your own insurance company fails to pay you in a timely fashion or is not compensating you appropriately according to your insurance coverage. Gathering all the evidence, the appropriate medical experts and testimony from any witnesses who may have seen the accident can be time-consuming and frustrating. A lawyer will help you put together a solid case whether you are suing your insurance company, suing another driver or disputing that you are responsible for a car accident.

After a Car Accident, Speak With a Personal Injury Lawyer at KBG Injury Law

The matter of determining fault in a car accident can be complex. As a result, you should seriously consider hiring an attorney if you have been hurt and your insurance company is not cooperating, or if you were involved in a wreck with another driver and there is some sort of dispute.

Our experienced and knowledgeable attorneys can make sure you receive the proper medical treatment, gather evidence and prepare your case so you either receive the compensation you deserve or are treated fairly if the accident is disputed.

Find out how KBG Injury Law may be able to help you by calling 717-848-3838 or contact us online. A member of our team will reach out to you as soon as possible.