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You glance in the rearview mirror and think to yourself, that guy isn’t going to be able to stop! You’re thrown against your steering wheel a split second later, hoping your airbag didn’t break your favorite sunglasses. You’ve been rear-ended. Car accidents like these are the most common type of two-car collisions, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHSTA), but this doesn’t make you feel any better about the situation.

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What You Need To Know If You’ve Been Rear-Ended: Car Accident Liability 101

Traffic laws vary significantly between states (and even some cities–did you know it’s against the law to turn right on red in New York City?). However, in most cases, the liable party in a traffic collision is determined by a legal theory called “negligence.”

In general, negligence requires four things:

  1. A duty of care
  2. A breach of that duty
  3. Harm to someone else
  4. Proof that the breach of duty caused the harm

All drivers have a duty to use reasonable care in the operation of their vehicles. This duty includes having a valid driver’s license, obeying the rules of the road, and taking appropriate precautions to account for the conditions of the road.

Drivers also have a duty to keep a reasonable distance between their vehicle and the vehicle in front of them on the road. What is “reasonable” depends on many things, including the road conditions, weather, speed of traffic, speed limit, type of vehicles involved, and driver experience levels.

TIP: The “two (or three) second rule” is a simple trick that many insurance companies and state DMVs recommend for determining a “safe” following distance. When driving, select an upcoming object along the road. When the rear end of the vehicle in front of you passes this object, begin counting. If you reach the object before two (or three) seconds have passed, you are probably following too closely.

Failure to keep a reasonable distance could constitute a breach of a driver’s duty. If that failure causes a rear-end accident, the at-fault driver may be liable for the injuries that result.

How Can I Be Liable If I Was Rear-Ended? Car Accident Scenarios With Unusual Fault Patterns

Contrary to popular belief, the car that does the rear-ending is not always solely liable for the occurrence. Generally, legal fault isn’t an either/or, black-or-white situation; this is often the case when someone is rear-ended. Car accidents can be caused by several factors working together, which can mean that more than one person or entity shares liability.

For example, imagine you’re driving on a narrow road late at night. A deer jumps out in front of your car, and you stomp on your brakes. Unbeknownst to you, there is a fault in your brake lights, and the driver behind you doesn’t notice you are stopping until it is too late. As they attempt to stop, they skid on some construction gravel that has spilled into the road and collide with the back of your car. After the accident, the other driver admits they drank a few beers with dinner.

In this situation, many factors contributed to the accident. Some were unavoidable and not caused by anyone’s breach of duty (i.e., the deer). Some seem to be an obvious breach of duty (i.e., the other driver’s potential intoxication). Others are questionable or could even implicate third parties, like:

  • Were the faulty brake lights a defect that could shift some liability onto the car manufacturer?
  • Were the faulty brake lights something you should reasonably have noticed and repaired?
  • Was the loose gravel a hazardous condition that could establish some contributory liability by a construction company or municipal agency that failed to ensure a safe roadway condition?

How Comparative Fault Impacts Damages

As you can see, it’s not enough to assume you aren’t at fault because you were rear-ended. Car accidents can have complicated fact patterns that lead to shared liability. Who ultimately has to pay (and how much) usually depends on the degree to which each person was at fault.

At one time, it was a common legal principle that if a plaintiff contributed at all to the occurrence that injured them that they would not be able to recover damages–even if someone else was much more at fault. Nowadays, most states have some form of “comparative fault” law: If a plaintiff was partially at fault, the court will reduce the damages they recover by an equivalent percentage. (Some states require that a plaintiff be less than 50 percent liable in order to recover.)

What does this mean to you if you are rear-ended? Car accident liability can be shared between you and the other driver (and possibly even third parties). Contributing factors like stopping short, failing to maintain operative brake lights, changing lanes without a signal, reversing suddenly, and other kinds of reckless driving could make you partially or fully liable for the accident (and even the other driver’s injuries!).

Rear-Ended? Car Accident Attorneys Are Here To Help

If you’ve been rear-ended or involved in any other kind of car accident, don’t assume you will get what you deserve. An attorney will help protect your rights and seek the damages you are entitled to. Don’t assume. Contact an attorney to discuss your case today.

Legal Disclaimer: This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation and should not be interpreted as creating an attorney-client relationship. If you have legal questions, you should seek the advice of an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

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