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What If I'm Partially At Fault for a Car Accident?

It’s more common than you might think, and it may not automatically exclude you from collecting damages.

Car accidents aren't always simple things with a single, clear-cut cause. Instead, they're caused by a series of decisions on the parts of both drivers, mixed with outside forces like road conditions and hazards. It's possible that you had some fault for a car accident you were in. This doesn't necessarily mean that you're ineligible to receive compensation for your injuries.

No-Fault States and Personal Injury Protection

The first step to determining if you can receive compensation for injuries is whether you hold a personal injury policy (PIP). PIP covers your medical bills in an accident (up to the limits of your policy), no matter who was at fault. So, for example, if you hold a PIP policy and you accidentally rear-end another car, your own policy will cover your medical bills up to the limits on your policy. If you hold PIP with a $200,000 limit, it will cover your own medical bills up to $200,000. PIP doesn't cover the other driver or their passengers in an accident.

There's one big drawback to PIP: it's expensive. Some people choose to skip this coverage to make their insurance premiums more affordable. While this saves money, it also means that you might be on your own if you cause an accident and aren't covered by PIP.

Some states require that residents carry PIP. These are referred to as no-fault states:

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

If you live in one of those states, your insurance will cover your medical bills, no matter who was at fault. If the court determines that the other driver caused the accident, your insurance company may bill their insurance company for the cost, but this won't involve you (except if your insurance asks you for information to help their case).

Types of Negligence

There are four different negligence models that are used in the United States: pure comparative, modified comparative, slight-gross negligence comparative, and contributory. Let's look at each of these individually.

Pure Comparative Negligence

In states that use the comparative negligence model, each driver in the lawsuit is given a percentage of the blame. Each driver can then collect damages, minus the amount that they contributed to the accident.

For example, imagine that you were in an accident and your damages totaled $50,000.

  • If the other driver was 100% responsible, they'd pay $50,000.
  • If they were 90% responsible, they would pay $45,000 (90% of $50,000), and you would be responsible for the other $5000 (or 10%).
  • If they were 20% responsible, they would pay $10,000 (20% of $50,000) and you would be responsible for the other $40,000 (or 80%).

The states that use the pure comparative model to determine negligence are:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Florida
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Rhode Island
  • Washington

Modified Comparative Negligence

Modified comparative negligence is similar in the fact that both pure and modified comparative negligence methods take into account the percentage of fault that each driver has. However, the modified comparative method (which is by far the most common method in the United States) works a little differently.

With this method, you can only seek damages if you were responsible for 49-50% of damages or less (some states set this at 49%, some at 50%). So, for example, if the court determines you're 51% responsible for the accident (or just a little more responsible than the other driver), you may not collect damages at all.

The states that use the modified comparative model to determine negligence are:

  • Arkansas
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

Slight-Gross Negligence Comparative

The slight-gross negligence comparative model is only used in the state of South Dakota. This is just a variation on comparative negligence. In South Dakota, drivers can only collect if their contribution to the accident is "slight", and the other driver's contribution is "gross" (or major). The law does not state exactly what the definitions and boundaries for slight and gross are; this is left up to the court system to interpret for each individual case.

Contributory Negligence

Contributory negligence is much less common than the main comparative negligence models. It's easier to understand, but the least flexible of the models. In the contributory negligence model, if you have any responsibility for the accident, you can't collect damages. That means if you bear even 1% of the responsibility for the accident, you are unable to collect damages.

The states that use the contributory model to determine negligence are:

  • Alabama
  • District of Columbia
  • Maryland
  • North Carolina
  • Virginia

How Do I Know My Degree of Fault?

The discussion above might give you some idea of what could happen in different states if you're partially responsible for an accident. What it can't do, though, is tell you what your exact degree of fault is. So how are you supposed to figure that out?

If you think you have any degree of responsibility (or even if you don't), the smartest thing to do is to reach out to a lawyer. Your lawyer will be familiar with how fault is determined in your state and may be able to provide you with a sense of the range your degree of fault might fall in.

Ultimately, there's no way to be sure how much the court will find you at fault until you've gone to court and made your best case. This is another reason that it's important to have a skilled lawyer at your side. Your lawyer will make sure that all the relevant facts are given, and may increase the chance of you receiving an appropriate settlement.

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