Who Is At Fault In a Rear-End Accident?

In a rear-end car accident, a jury can find either driver, both drivers, or neither driver at fault for the collision. However, there is a duty on the following vehicle to maintain a safe distance so that if the lead vehicle stops, the following vehicle may also stop. This often results in police officers placing fault or at least a contributing cause of the collision on the rear-striking vehicle.

Fault vs No-Fault Insurance States

In states where fault determines who is liable for a car accident, the majority, like Texas, go by comparative negligence. This means responsibility for causing the wreck is apportioned between the drivers and the person bringing the claim loses that portion of damages matching his percentage of responsibility so long as it is below a certain amount. Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington D.C. go by pure contributory negligence-which means that if the person bringing the claim shares any responsibility for causing the wreck, they make no recovery.

Are You Automatically at Fault if You Rear-End a Car in Texas?

Rear-end accidentNo. You are not automatically at fault for rear-ending someone in Texas. There is an erroneous belief held by many that if you hit someone from the back in Texas, you are automatically at fault for the accident. This statement is far from the truth and demonstrates a misunderstanding of how Texas’ personal injury law works. A jury has the right to apportion liability or ‘negligence’ between the drivers or find none at all, even in a rear-end collision. Thus, you must still obtain a finding of negligence.

Alexander v Halliburton Confirms No Automatic Liability

In Alexander v Halliburton Energy Services Inc., et. al.,  a Halliburton employee was driving behind Alexander as they were merging onto Loop 337 from an entrance lane in Comal, County. Both were looking over their shoulder to merge. A vehicle ahead of Alexander that was also attempting to merge stopped.  When the lead car stopped, Alexander stopped and the Halliburton employee rear-ended Alexander with such force as to knock her into the first car. Neither weather nor lighting was a factor in this cut-and-dry rear-end accident.

Unavoidable Accident on a Warm Sunny Day

The Halliburton employee, like any defendant well-coached by his defense lawyer, testified that he just “glanced away” right before traffic “suddenly stopped.” As if a sudden stop in a merge line is not to be expected and carefully guarded for as they teach in every driver’s ed course. Apparently, the trial court missed that lesson in driver’s ed because the court saw this as a valid defense argument. The trial court bought it. When the question of  “whose negligence, if any caused the collision,” was given to the jury, the judge included an instruction on the defense of unavoidable accident.  The instruction was “an occurrence may be an ‘unavoidable accident,’ that is, an event not proximately caused by the negligence of any party to the occurrence.” Following this instruction, the jury found no negligence–meaning nobody was at fault even though this was a simple open-and-shut rear-end collision.

Historically, the unavoidable accident defense has been limited to situations where factors out of the parties’ control such as ice, high winds, hail, sleet, or snow caused the collision. In this case, both the trial court and the court of appeals deviated from the historical application of the defense and applied the defense in optimum driving conditions. Unfortunately, the Texas Supreme Court did not weigh in on this matter leaving accident attorneys to have to fight a bad court opinion to get justice for their clients.

Frequently Asked Questions about Rear-End Accidents

How Does Comparative Responsibility Apply to Rear-End Accidents?

Texas is not an ‘all-or-nothing’ state. A jury considers and compares the responsibility of all drivers involved in rendering a verdict as to who bears fault. In other words, more than one person, including you the victim, can be found negligent in an auto collision. So even though you were in the read-ended car, if you did anything like change lanes suddenly or unsafely hit the brakes, you can be found partially at fault.

The jury question is often submitted as: ‘Did the negligence of any of the following persons proximately cause the motor vehicle in question?’ It will then have a list of names which may include yours, the other driver’s name, and even a ‘John Doe’ driver who contributed to the accident and then fled the scene. The names will have a blank for the jury to write ‘yes’ or ‘no’ next to each. If they find more than one person’s negligence contributed to an accident, then they are asked to apportion the liability by assigning a percentage to each.

If the percentage assigned to you exceeds 50%, you recover nothing. If your percentage is under 50%, you can recover only the percentage for which the other persons are responsible. Thus, if the jury finds your negligence was 30 percent of the cause of the rear-end accident and the other driver’s negligence was 70 percent of the cause, and awards you $10,000.00, you would only recover $7,000.00 due to your comparative negligence. But, if they find you 51 percent and the other driver 49 percent, you recover nothing.

How Can the Lead Driver Be Found at Fault in a Rear-End Collision?

A jury may find the lead driver partially or totally at fault for causing a collision when the evidence shows that the lead driver did something an ordinarily prudent person would not have done such as cut someone off or hit the brakes and stopped suddenly when it was not safe to do so.  This is true because when a jury considers responsibility for a rear-end collision they consider the actions of all drivers.

Remember, there are two sides to every story. You undoubtedly feel you were doing exactly what you were supposed to be doing and got hit from behind so it should not be your fault. However, the other drive probably feels different. He may argue that you stopped at a green light when it was not safe to do so. Or perhaps, he will claim you slammed on your brakes or slowed unexpectedly for no reason in front of him, thereby causing him to hit from behind. He could also claim that you started to go and then stopped unexpectedly. All of these are examples of arguments commonly made by defense attorneys and their clients in an attempt to get juries to assign some percent of the responsibility upon the person who was rear-ended.

When your case goes to trial, it will be decided by 12 strangers who were not there when the auto collision happened. They will be asked to listen to both sides and decide what they think happened. 10 out of 12 must find for you as the plaintiff to win. They will not get to hear who received the ticket in most cases because criminal traffic tickets are generally not admissible in a civil liability case. So they all argue until they reach a compromise they can all live with. That compromise is often a split liability verdict.

Defenses Used in Read-End Accidents

Can a Rear-End Accident Be an Unavoidable Accident?

An unavoidable accident is an event that occurs but is not caused by the negligence of any party to it. An example of this might be a wild animal darting into the road causing an accident. If the passenger in a vehicle that hits a deer sues the driver, the driver will likely claim the accident was an ‘unavoidable accident.’ If the jury agrees, then the passenger cannot make any recovery against the driver. This is a defense commonly used by defense lawyers to try to help their clients avoid responsibility for causing a car wreck–even rear-ended accidents.

Can a Rear-End Accident Be a Sudden Emergency?

The sudden emergency defense is another defense often used by defense lawyers to try to avoid responsibility for a rear-end accident. You must find a defendant negligent in order for them to be liable for any accident. The sudden emergency defense is a defense to a negligence cause of action for causing an auto collision. To succeed in such a defense, the defendant must show that:

  • an emergency arose;
  • it was a sudden and unforeseeable event that arose through no negligence or fault on the part of the defendant, and;
  • the defendant responded to the event as a reasonably prudent person would have under the same or similar circumstances but the accident occurred anyway.

This defense is similar to an unavoidable accident defense in that it is a way of seeking a finding of ‘no negligence’ on the part of the defendant. The key to understanding this defense is realizing that it relieves a defendant of responsibility for an accident that occurs after an emergency he/she did not cause arises so long as he responded reasonably. An example of a”sudden emergency” might be when a driver has an unforeseen heart attack while driving down the road and loses control of the vehicle causing an accident.

Example: How the Rear-Ended Car Driver Gets Blamed

One way a sneaky insurance adjuster can spoil your case, even though your car was the one rear-ended,  is by calling you up and getting you to agree on record that the accident was a sudden emergency or that traffic “stopped suddenly.” They may even preface it by saying “Well, we will probably just accept liability but I need a recorded statement from you to complete my investigation.” Then they lead you:

Adjuster: “You didn’t do anything to cause this did you?”
You: “Oh no, no.”
Adjuster: “Traffic just stopped suddenly and you had to slam on your brakes but there was nothing you could do right?”
You: “Oh sure, right.”
Adjuster: “That’s what our client said it wasn’t your fault because you couldn’t stop and neither could she when traffic stopped suddenly, don’t you agree with that too?
You “oh yes, sure.”

Congratulations. You just set up their sudden emergency defense. You can expect to receive a denial letter in the mail shortly. This is just one way an adjuster can trick you into harming your own case.

Conclusion

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you were rear-ended and the adjuster seems friendly they are just going to accept responsibility and pay your claim. They have many tricks up their sleeve that they can pull to destroy or damage your case. You need to get the advice of a Houston car accident attorney who has tried rear-end accidents and understands how these defenses are used by defense lawyers and insurance companies to avoid responsibility for rear-end collisions.  Furthermore,  you should never agree to give a recorded statement without having your own legal representative to advise you on how not to get tripped up. Call Simmons and Fletcher, P.C. at (713) 932-0777 for a free consultation before you get tricked into hurting your own claim. The initial consultation is always free and we charge no fees for handling your case unless we make a recovery on your case.

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