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Who Is at Fault in a Rear-End Collision?

When a driver hits another vehicle from behind in a rear-end collision, liability for the incident almost always falls to the trailing driver. However, some rear-end collisions may involve shared liability between multiple drivers. It is sometimes possible for a leading driver to absorb liability after another driver hits his or her vehicle from behind, depending on how the accident happened.

Chain Reaction Accidents

Rear-end collisions sometimes involve multiple vehicles. For example, a driver taking a turn at too high a speed sees a line of stopped traffic ahead but does not have time or room to stop, and the driver hits one vehicle from behind. The driver was not expecting this, and the vehicle moves forward and hits the next car ahead, and so on. At high speeds, a chain reaction like this may affect three or more cars.

In this example, the driver who struck the line of cars and caused the chain reaction accident would likely absorb liability for the damages to all the other drivers’ vehicles. However, if the at-fault driver somehow proves one of those drivers was negligent in any way that contributed to the accident, it is possible for one or more of the other drivers to assume liability.

“Brake Checking” Accidents

Drivers should use care on the road to leave adequate space between vehicles in the event a leading vehicle needs to suddenly brake or stop. As a general rule, most drivers should leave at least one car length of space between their vehicles and leading vehicles for every 10 mph of traveling speed. For example, at 40 mph it is usually advisable to leave four car lengths of space between a trailing vehicle in a leading vehicle. At this speed, a driver would likely need at least this amount of distance to slow down or stop to avoid a collision.

Some drivers tailgate or drive too closely behind other drivers, and this can be stressful and frustrating for leading drivers. Some leading drivers engage in a practice known as “brake checking” to deter tailgaters, but this is a very dangerous practice. Brake checking is when a leading driver suddenly taps on the brakes when another driver is tailgating, causing that driver to suddenly brake.

While some drivers may see this as a simple but direct way of telling a trailing tailgater to “give me some room,” a tailgating driver may not have time to brake or may not notice the leading vehicle’s brake lights in time. In these cases, the leading driver could very likely absorb at least some liability for the accident. Even though the leading driver engaged in a dangerous practice, the trailing driver still has a duty of care to prevent crashes into leading drivers’ vehicles, and following another driver too closely is an obvious violation of this duty of care.

Shared Liability or Comparative Negligence

Most states in the U.S. follow comparative negligence laws which essentially allow liability for car accidents to fall to one or more parties, including a plaintiff in an auto accident lawsuit. If an investigation uncovers any evidence that a plaintiff with a car accident claim has any measure of fault for an accident and the accident occurred in a state with a comparative negligence law, the plaintiff will lose a portion of his or her settlement or case award equal to his or her fault percentage for the accident.

For example, a driver tailgates another driver and the leading driver brake checks the tailgater, causing an accident. The jury determines the leading driver is 40% at fault for brake checking, but the trailing driver still absorbs the majority of the fault because all drivers have a responsibility to avoid rear-end collisions. The leading driver succeeds with the claim but loses 40% of the case award to reflect his or her fault. Rear-end collisions are often straightforward, and fault is usually easy to determine, but any driver with questions about liability for a recent rear-end collision should meet with a car accident attorney to determine his or her best legal options.


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