Understanding and determining fault in auto accidents involving multiple vehicles
Car accidents involving a single-vehicle or two vehicles are complicated enough. But when 3 or more vehicles collide, the chaos that ensues is amplified a hundred fold. Multi-vehicle collisions, or “pile-ups,” most often happen on Georgia’s interstates and highways due to the high rate of speed and density of vehicles.
Determining fault and liability in a pile-up crash is one of the most difficult parts of resolving these types of accident claims. In this article, we’ll explore the concepts you need to know to help determine who is at fault for a multi-vehicle accident and, therefore, who pays for your injuries or damages.
But first, it’s important to talk about fault in Georgia and how negligence plays out in general car accident cases.
Auto accident fault and Georgia negligence laws
Before a car accident victim can have a valid claim against an at-fault driver, it must first be proved that the defendant is responsible for damages. In legal terms, you can also say that the driver must be proven “liable” or responsible for the loss they caused to another.
An easy way to understand liability is to summarize it as follows:
- There was a duty owed
- A duty was breached
- The breach of duty caused the injury (proximate cause)
Here’s an example:
But not so fast.
There is a witness who claims you were speeding. Additionally, the witness says you could have avoided the accident if you hadn’t been going so fast in the first place. The witnesses’ statement is all captured on the police report. The insurance adjuster obtains a statement from the witness and places you partially at fault for causing the accident.
As shown in the example above, not every accident is as clear-cut as it initially appears. Sometimes there is shared responsibility. In fact, this issue is so common that every state has adopted varying methods for addressing it.
Two basic approaches are used from state-to-state when more than one party is at fault for causing an accident. These two basic methods are referred to as comparative negligence and contributory negligence.
States that use the method of contributory negligence, such as Virginia and Alabama, say that if a person is just 1 percent at fault for contributing to an accident, then they are banned from recovery from any other driver. This philosophy contends that a driver ought not to be able to recover damages for what he or she helped cause in the first place.
Under the comparative negligence standard, on the other hand, the question to ask is how much of a role did each driver play. Comparative negligence is further divided into 2 categories known as pure comparative and modified comparative.
States using the pure comparative method, such as Florida and Mississippi, allow each at-fault driver to recover damages from the other equal to the amount of their responsibility. For example, if 2 cars collide and one is deemed 30% responsible, and the other is 70% responsible, each driver owes to the other for the percentage of the damage they caused.
In Georgia, the rule of modified comparative is used.
Modified comparative fault contends that there is a limit to how much a driver can be responsible for a collision and still make a claim for damages against an at-fault driver. In other words, in accidents where there is joint responsibility, a partially at-fault driver is permitted to claim damages from another only if the person making the claim was less than 50% responsible.
This being said, cases where each driver is 50% negligence becomes a wash since neither party is less than 50% at-fault. Generally speaking, most states utilize the modified comparative rule.
Proving fault in a Georgia auto accident
Obtain the accident report
There are a few practical steps one can make when assessing liability in a multi-vehicle auto accident. The first step is to obtain the accident report. Usually, these are made available within a week or so from the accident date. Complex accidents involving multiple vehicles and reports from larger cities may take longer.
Once the police report is obtained, read it carefully and look for errors in the report that might come back to haunt you later if not corrected. For example, a police officer may have intended to depict in their diagram Vehicle 1 crossing the center line and striking Vehicle 2 head-on, but he or she accidentally labeled them backward.
In this case, there’s going to be a contradiction between the reporting officer’s narrative and their diagram. This may easily cause confusion for the insurance adjuster over which version of events is correct. Is it the diagram or the narrative?
To eliminate any potential problems, you should quickly contact the reporting officer and explain the discrepancy so that they can address the issue by way of an amended report. The longer you wait to do this, the smaller the chances that a correction will happen at all. Generally speaking, reporting officers won’t amend a police report after too much time as passed. Insignificant clerical errors or minor typos also usually will not be corrected.
To be clear here, we’re talking about documentation errors by the police officer. We are not suggesting that you contact law enforcement to argue your side to the reporting officer again. However, in cases where you feel strongly that your version was not fairly represented by the reporting officer, you should consider writing your own statement of what happened and request that it be added as part of the official police report. Again, this must happen sooner than later if it is to be considered as part of the amended report.
Request the disposition of the ticket
In some cases, an insurance adjuster may dispute that their insured is fully responsible for causing the multi-vehicle accident. They might deny liability even if their insured client received a citation for causing the accident. Their assessment might be based on evidence from their own investigation.
In such cases, it is recommended that you or your attorney request the disposition of the ticket for the other driver through an open records request. This may not be available for up to 3 months after the accident.
Here’s an example of how obtaining the disposition of the other driver’s citation can make a difference:
The adjuster contends that there is a witness to support their case of disputed liability. However, they have yet to locate the witness. Time passes and Driver A eventually doesn’t want the ticket hanging over his head, so he pays the ticket online to avoid going to court. Driver A’s insurance company never found their witness.
Little did Driver A know that paying the ticket is generally considered an admission of guilt and is admissible. Driver B’s attorney files an open records request and obtains proof that the Drive A did, in fact, pay the ticket.
Next, Driver B’s attorney calls Driver A’s insurance adjuster and advise them that their insured paid the ticket; therefore, they will be expecting a change in Driver A’s liability assessment.
As you can see, requesting the disposition of the other driver’s citation can be a big difference-maker when liability is in dispute.
How to prove fault in a simple multiple vehicle accident
Now that we’ve gone over the basics regarding liability in Georgia, we are ready to consider the more complex scenario of a multi-vehicle accident.
Take, for instance, a multi-vehicle rear-end collision.
Determining fault in a multi-vehicle rear-end accident is based upon the physical evidence, the versions provided by the occupants of each vehicle, witnesses, and sound judgment based on the facts obtained at the scene of the crash.
The best car accident attorney will seek to get answers for each of these categories and then weigh the evidence holistically to see what makes sense.
Going forward, let’s take these one at a time and determine how these may play out in a real life situation. For simplicity’s sake, the example we will use involves 4 equally sized sedans.
In our example, let us assume that all vehicles were stopped at a red light except for the vehicle in the very rear. The vehicle in the very rear comes up from behind at a moderately high rate of speed and doesn’t stop. The rear vehicle hits the third car from the front, pushing all other cars into one another.
In this case, the damage to each of the 4 vehicles should be worse for the vehicle in the rear and less worse for the vehicle in the very front. Typically, this is a good indication that the vehicle in the rear was the proximate cause of the accident. In these kinds of cases, the damage to the back of the front vehicle is often relatively minor compared to the vehicles behind them. In short, the energy from the originating rear impact should appear to be decreasing from the rear to the front of the line. This is a good indication that the vehicle in the rear caused the accident.
Testimony from people involved in the accident
Additionally, you will want to know how many impacts the occupants in each vehicle felt. Continuing with our example, if the vehicle in the front says they felt only 1 impact, that would make sense. That is, if the vehicle in the rear pushed the next car into everyone else, naturally there is only one rear impact felt per car. This is evidence that the vehicle in the rear created a domino effect of impacts.
Concepts such as this may seem basic, but the words of the occupants in such a scenario can be the difference-maker between the vehicle in the rear being entirely responsible for all damages or not.
Eyewitnesses & video footage
In your attorney’s investigation, the importance of an independent witness in determining fault in a multi-vehicle rear-end accident cannot be overstated. To be clear, friends, family members, or associates are NOT independent witnesses. The potential for bias is too high.
To locate independent witnesses for an accident, we typically first look at the police report. Often, they are clearly listed as part of the reporting officer’s investigation. If there is no witness listed on the police report, we go back to the accident scene and look for one. Sometimes, we can find someone who saw the accident take place. For instance, store owners might have large windows that are right next to the street corner where the accident happened. We can ask them what they saw, if anything.
If we locate a witness to your accident who wasn’t originally listed on the police report, we’ll ask them for permission to record their version of what they saw. We’ll ask them for a written statement and get it notarized.
If no human witnesses are available, we can look for an electronic one. Probably the most unbiased witness you can have is video footage. It’s essential to be thoughtful as to how you approach a nearby business owner when asking for their video footage. They may be hesitant and fearful of doing such a thing because they fear it will cause them problems down the road. Traffic cameras are another possibility; however, they typically don’t capture and retain full-scale video footage of traffic activity. At best, they may take single photos one at a time.
It’s not always necessary to obtain all of the different types of evidence discussed above. In most multi-vehicle rear-end accidents, the reporting officer will properly record in their accident report what each driver said they experienced. The officer will conclude who they think was at fault based on his or her examination of the physical damage and the statements from each driver.
But multi-vehicle rear-end accidents are rarely so cut-and-dried.
Liability in complex multi-vehicle collisions
The example above was relatively straightforward. All the cars were sitting stationary and the vehicle in the rear struck the vehicle in front of them and pushed all cars into each other, resulting in a domino-effect of damage.
But this time, let’s say the vehicle in the front was sitting at a red light when the car behind them (the second car) approached from the rear and struck them with a rear impact. The third vehicle approaching from the rear slams on brakes to avoid impact, but unfortunately the vehicle in the rear is surprised by this action and unable to stop in time. As a result, the vehicle in the rear hits the car in front of them, pushing all cars into one another. As a result, the vehicle in the front has been hit twice.
In this case, who is the proximate cause of the accident?
The investigation for this multi-vehicle accident will essentially be the same as our first example. First, let’s look at the physical damage.
If the damage to the rear of the front car is heavy and the rear damage to the car hitting them is relatively minor, it’s reasonable to assume that the second vehicle caused most of the damage. They can’t reasonably argue they were pushed hard into the front car since the evidence is against it. There would need to be a significant damage to the rear of their vehicle to demonstrate that they were forced into the vehicle in front of them. Most likely, a majority of the fault is going to be placed on the second driver who hit the vehicle in the very front in the first place.
However, the car in the very rear isn’t off the hook.
If the evidence is strong enough, responsibility for physical damage caused to the front car could be divided up as 70 percent to 90 percent against the car who hit first, leaving 10 percent to 30 percent against the driver responsible for the second impact (the rear vehicle).
Testimony from people involved in the accident
As previously mentioned, another way of determining fault in these kinds of accidents is to ask how many impacts the driver felt. In our first example, they all felt only one. This is consistent with a simple domino effect from an initial rear impact to all other cars.
But if the vehicle in the very front says they felt 2 impacts, then this is an indication that the vehicle in the very rear didn’t simply push all cars together. Perhaps there was a superseding impact from somewhere before the vehicle in the very rear did what they did. Given the physical evidence, we can rightfully assume that the second vehicle was responsible for the initial impact, and then the rear vehicle was responsible for the second impact.
Eyewitnesses & video footage
Third, were there any witnesses? If so, this will likely be a clear-cut case. Let’s say an independent witness says they saw the accident from start to finish, and that they saw the front vehicle get hit first before the rear vehicle pushed all the cars together a second time. In this case, there is pretty much no disputing that the drivers of the second and fourth vehicles should be held responsible for damages incurred by the other vehicles.
“Last clear chance” argument and shared fault for multi-vehicle crashes
The “last clear chance” argument is typically made by insurance companies and often comes into play in accidents involving multiple vehicles. Simply put, this argument tries to make the case that the location where a vehicle was hit can determine if the victim is partially responsible for the accident.
For example, imagine Driver 1 is exiting from a side road and crossing a busy four-lane highway. Driver 1 pulls into the path of Driver 2, who has the right of way. Driver 1 almost makes it completely across the road, but is hit in the quarter panel by Driver 2, spinning him into Driver 3. Driver 1 receives the citation from police for pulling into the path of oncoming traffic that had the right of way.
In total, 3 cars are damaged. The insurance adjusters examine the police report and the evidence. In spite of Driver 1 receiving the citation, Driver 1’s insurance company determines that Driver 2 is partially at fault. Their argument is that Driver 1 was hit in the far rear quarter panel.
Under the theory of “last clear chance,” Driver 2 had plenty of time to avoid the accident yet failed to do so. The adjuster concedes that Driver 1 (their customer) is mostly at-fault, but says that Driver 2 is 30 percent at fault for not avoiding the collision.
In this case, Driver 3 would have to recoup damages from both Driver 1 (in the amount of 70 percent) and Driver 2 (in the amount of 30 percent).
Note: As a practical matter, Driver 3 will simply rely on her own collision coverage and let the insurance companies fight amongst themselves over fault.
Common factors in multi-vehicle collisions
When it comes to determining fault in multi-vehicle auto accidents, the possibilities of what may have happened can be as varied as the imagination will allow. However, these types of collisions most often involve the following factors:
- Lane changes
- Left turns
- Parking and backing
- Traffic light and controls
Why hire the best Atlanta auto accident attorney
As you can imagine, there’s no set theory that can always accurately determine fault when there are more than two parties involved in an accidents. The best way to handle liability in crashes involving multiple vehicles is to hire an experienced auto accident attorney to look at the evidence. If the current evidence isn’t enough to satisfy, your lawyer can press forward with their own investigation and find additional information that makes all the difference in your case.
All the evidence found in an investigation must be weighed as a whole. Every once and awhile, physical damage is enough to tell the full story, but not always. Sometimes, the police officer clearly indicates each driver’s version of events and the number of impacts felt, but not always. Sometimes there is a witness, and sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes there is video evidence, and often there’s not.
In most multi-vehicle collision cases, the evidence is lacking one way or another. The only thing that any individual, claims adjuster, or attorney can do is examine what is available and make the most reasonable conclusion possible. There isn’t always a quick and easy answer when it comes to assessing fault in multi-vehicle accidents. But the weight of the evidence is your best friend.
At Scholle Law, our Georgia car accident lawyers represent clients in ALL types of auto accidents, regardless of cause. Whether your injuries are due to the negligence of another driver who failed to yield the right of way in an intersection or who side-swiped your vehicle on a highway, we can prove that your injuries are the fault of the other driver.