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A Beginner’s Guide to Car Accidents: Who Is At Fault?

Determining who is liable for damages during a car accident is essential. You can’t just decide that someone is liable without a viable reason or evidence. For example, suppose a motorist is injured when another motorist cuts her off after turning onto the street. 

Many people may think that the motorist who cuts her off should be liable. However, the motorist may only be liable if she was speeding or made an illegal lane change prior to the collision. The decision of who pays for damages depends on motor vehicle statutes rather than the traditional, common law definition of “fault.”

What is “fault” in common law?

Fault in an accident is either created by law or defined by common law. Common law recognizes four basic levels of fault. These are the following:

  1. Negligence or careless or inadvertent conduct that results in harm or damage. This is common in automobile accidents. A person can be negligent when they fail to do something, such as not yielding the right-of-way to avoid an accident and actively doing something (such as running a red light).
  1. Recklessness or wanton conduct, wherein the actions were deliberate in causing harm to others. 
  1. Intentional misconduct or the willful disregard for the safety and welfare of others. 
  1. Strict liability (regardless of fault), wherein you can be held liable, even in the absence of fault for accidents involving certain defective products or extra hazardous activities (such as transporting explosive chemicals).

According to common law, an individual who has caused a car accident has committed a “tort,” a private wrong against another.  Those who have committed torts are referred to as “tortfeasors.” A number of automobile insurance policies use the word “tortfeasor” for persons who are partly at fault for an accident.

As for motorists who engage in drunk driving, there’s rarely a question of fault. However, if it is general negligence, then understanding who was at fault becomes more complex. In this case, state law dictates who must pay for damage to property and injuries to the involved parties.

Motor Vehicle Statutory Violations

A violation of any of these statutes generally creates a presumption of negligence as a matter of law. For example, many US states require motorcyclists to wear helmets. If you don’t wear one, that constitutes an act of negligence, which may affect liability in an accident. Thus, you can be liable simply by citing a statute that has been violated. 

If you are presumed to have caused the accident, you bear the burden of proving that this act of negligence was not a proximate cause of the injuries. For example, suppose the motorcyclist who failed to wear a helmet suffered a serious brain injury after being sideswiped. The motorist may have been negligent, but so was the motorcyclist who didn’t wear a helmet. 

The simplest and best way to apply the concept of proximate cause is to ask whether it would be true that, “but for” the violation, the accident would not have occurred. 


Establishing who is at fault depends on the law. You need to work with a lawyer to help you if ever you find yourself in this situation. Have an attorney review your claim to ensure proper justice is administered. 

Zukerberg & Halperin are experienced car accident and civil rights attorneys in DC. We are top-rated personal injury attorneys in Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Contact us to learn if you may be able to collect damages to cover your losses.

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