An Introduction to Liability

Car Accident Liability

After you’ve been in an automobile accident, it is very important to determine who is at fault. Determining which party is at fault is tantamount to determining liability, and liability is the name of the game when it comes to obtaining compensation for your injuries and other damages. For this reason, it is very important to be diligent about maintaining records and gathering pertinent information following the accident.

In some cases, the question of liability might be cut and dry. Perhaps the driver was grossly negligent and ran through a red light, leading to the accident that caused your injury. Maybe they were drinking or speeding. There are a number of scenarios where you may not have to worry so much about proving liability.

That being said, there are cases where the situation is not so straight forward, and you will have to get to work right away to prove that the other driver was at-fault. In what follows, we will explore some fundamental principles of liability in automobile accidents.


It’s important to note that every state has its own rules and regulations regarding fault and liability. What’s more, each state has its own road laws, so an infraction in one state may not be an infraction in another. For this reason, it’s a good idea to consult with a car accident attorney who understands your state’s statutes and any possible limitations pertaining to liability.


Generally speaking, causing a car crash falls under the aegis of tort law and is thus an issue for civil courts, as opposed to criminal courts. Thus, courts tend to follow common law precepts when handling these cases and each state has its own version of common law.

There are at least four liability concepts in common law that are used in the litigation of automobile accidents. They are negligence, recklessness, intentional tort and strict liability. Each of these pertains to different situations. For instance, strict liability is often used in cases involving defective products. Under this principle, a person or entity is held responsible for the injury caused by a faulty product, whether or not the person or entity acted negligently or intended to inflict harm. So, in the context of an automobile accident, a defective car part might ultimately be the culprit. In this case, the manufacturer might be held liable.

The other three common law precepts pertain to the at-fault driver. Negligence refers to a basic failure to follow fundamental rules, like stopping at a stop light; recklessness refers to situations where a person is driving in an irresponsible manner (e.g. speeding); and intentional torts refer to drivers who intend to harm the other person.

Breaking the Law

It is also possible to pursue claims on the basis of statutory violations. In this case, it would have to be shown that the other driver broke the law. If the driver did violate the rules of the road and this violation caused the accident, that driver is then presumed negligent. The onus is then on the negligent driver to prove that there were other causes that led to the crash.

Related Terms

Other related terms include proximate cause, contributory negligence and the “but-for” principle. The first – proximate cause – refers to other causes that may have led to the injury. For instance, if a driver rear-ends you, but you fail to wear your seat belt, the lack of restraint might be deemed a proximate cause of the resultant injury. In that particular circumstance, you may also be made to share some of the liability.

Generally, the plaintiff and the defendant take varying percentages of the total liability – for instance, the rear-end driver might take 70 percent of the liability, while you take 30 percent for not wearing a seat belt. Finally, the “but for” doctrine is used to determine causation. For instance, if a head injury wouldn’t have occurred but for the lack of restraint, then a person’s failure to wear a seat belt might be considered at least a partial cause.

It should be noted here that some states follow the harsh rule of contributory negligence in which a driver who is even one percent at fault may not recover damages from the other driver who was 99 percent at fault.

Potential Complications

Ultimately, contributory negligence and comparative negligence are applied differently depending on the jurisdiction, so it’s important, once again, to ask an attorney about the applicability of these principles in your case. This is true of all legal doctrines surrounding negligence in car accidents. Different legal principles may apply depending on the state or locality in which the car wreck occurred. One doctrine might be applicable to car accidents while being barred from application in other torts.

Different Rules

In some states, courts abide by the pure contributory negligence rule, which states that a driver may not obtain any compensation for damages if they share even 1 percent of the fault. By contrast, the pure comparative fault principle states that both drivers may be at fault to varying degrees. In this case, the liability is shared and each party is allotted a percentage of the liability – as mentioned above. Other states might employ variations, such as the 50 percent rule, according to which a person must be less than 50 percent at-fault in order to be eligible for compensation. It’s important to note that each of these may have exceptions.

In the end, it is a good idea to seek out the help of a skilled car accident attorney, as they can help navigate the complicated web of rules and laws in your state.

Sean Lally About Sean Lally

Sean Lally holds a BA in Philosophy from Temple University where he also studied theatre for several years. Between 2007 and 2017, he worked as a professional actor for several regional theater companies in Philadelphia, including the Arden Theatre Co., EgoPo Productions, Lantern Theater and the Bearded Ladies. In 2010, Sean co-founded Found Theater Company, an avant-garde artist collective with whom he first started to cultivate an identity as a writer.