Who is responsible in a multi-car accident?
Some car accidents are simple. Say you’re stopped at a light, and somebody rear ends you. No other cars are involved, the road is dry, and it’s broad daylight. Not too much drama over who deserves the blame in that scenario.
Multi-vehicle accidents that involve at least three drivers, however, are often much trickier. Multiple people may be hurt. Multiple people may be injured. Multiple insurance policies might apply.
Even just figuring out who crashed into whom, in what order, and which of those impacts might have been avoidable can start to become a real headache—especially when witnesses are scarce, and the drivers don’t all agree. But those questions need to be answered, because multiple people may be hurt, and some drivers may be liable for some of those injuries (but not others).
The basic rule of thumb is that the car that caused the initial collision in a multi vehicle accident chain reaction is typically (but not always) responsible for the ones that follow. There’s a solid logic to that—after all, if the first impact never occurred, there’s a pretty good chance that none of the ones that followed it would have, either.
For example, let’s look at your basic rear-end collision chain reaction. Driver C approaches a stoplight at a high rate of speed, crashes into Driver B, and the force on the impact pushes B forward into Driver A. In this scenario, Driver C is likely to be held responsible for the entire chain reaction.
Seems reasonable enough, right? Here’s the problem: Not all multi-car accidents are quite so clean cut. In many cases, more than one driver may have acted negligently. If the multiple drivers were distracted or not leaving enough following distance to come to a safe stop, some of follow-up collisions could have (and should have) been avoided. The drivers who failed to avoid those secondary collisions in the chain reaction accident would thus also potentially be on the hook for injuries those collisions caused.
For example, let’s say Driver B rear-ends Driver A. But because Driver C was following too closely, they also crash into the pileup. In this scenario, Driver A gets hit twice, and both B and C could share liability for A’s injuries. And what about Driver B? They may be responsible for A’s injuries, but may also have a legitimate claim of their own against C.
Furthermore, because Washington state follows a pure comparative fault standard, not only can multiple parties be at fault in a multi car accident, but anyone who is less than 100% at fault (even 99%) can receive some level of compensation for their losses.
So, what are some of the key elements that can make these kinds of accidents so tricky? Here are some of the big ones:
The more vehicles there are involved, the more likely it is that there will be multiple, mutually incompatible accounts of the accident. This includes testimony from both drivers and potential witnesses. It might be that one or more drivers are lying to protect themselves, but it could just as easily be that people remember the accident differently. Human memory isn’t always reliable, especially in high-stress situations, which is why injured people often need a skilled attorney who can get to the heart of what happened.
Multiple possible sources of negligence
Maybe one person was driving recklessly and not leaving enough following distance. Maybe the person in front didn’t use a turn signal. Maybe there was more than one distracted driver. The more complicated the scenario, the harder it is to assign fault fairly between multiple parties—and the longer the case can drag out.
Whenever negligence is disputed, you can expect challenges that may delay your case. That’s especially true with the pure comparative fault system in Washington. Every insurance company involved is going to want to minimize what they must pay out, and you can bet they aren’t all going to agree.
Difficulty linking specific injuries to specific collisions
In a crash where you’re hit more than once, it can be especially difficult to pin down which impact caused which injuries to get the compensation you need to recover.
Let’s go back to the example above, where Driver A suffers multiple impacts—first from being rear-ended by Driver B, then hit again by Driver C.
Suppose that Driver A suffers a mild traumatic brain injury and soft tissue damage in their neck and shoulders. But which impact caused these injuries—the first or second? What if the first impact was relatively mild, while the second one cause a much more forceful case of whiplash?
Difficulty of reconstructing the scene
An accident reconstructionist can examine evidence such as vehicle damage, debris patterns, skid marks, and injuries to help piece together what probably happened in a chain reaction crash. But when multiple vehicles are involved, this process can become much more complicated.
Insufficient insurance coverage
Because of the number of drivers and passengers involved in a multi-car crash, there may be several people with injuries—some of them severe. That can pose a problem when the available pool of liability insurance from the responsible parties isn’t enough to cover everyone who has been hurt.
In Washington, drivers are only required to carry minimum liability coverage of $25,000 per person, up to $50,000 per accident. Let’s say that one person with minimum coverage is fully responsible for a chain reaction car accident that injures four other people. How far do you think $50,000 is going to go if it has to be split four ways?
This is a big reason why we always encourage drivers to purchase uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage (UI/UIM) when they get their car insurance. These policies will cover your damages in place of an at-fault driver’s liability insurance when damages go above and beyond the coverage limits—which frankly happens quite often, even in supposedly “minor” collisions.
RELATED POST: Why should I purchase uninsured motorist coverage?
Sometimes, after a really simple accident where the facts aren’t disputed and your injuries aren’t too bad, you can handle a claim on your own. Chain reaction accidents, unfortunately, rarely fall into this category. They can quickly get quite complicated, which is why hiring an attorney as soon as possible after the crash is one of the smartest decisions you can make.
Attorney Zach Herschensohn is no stranger to investigating collisions involving three or more vehicles. These negotiations get super complicated super quickly, with so many drivers and insurance companies all arguing for their side of the story.
Our team knows how to sort through the evidence and witness statements and connect with experts who can piece together how the accident occurred. And when another driver’s insurance company is trying to pin the blame on you, or dodge their responsibility to pay for your damages, you need an experienced advocate who can fight for you—all the way through a trial, if necessary.
Still on the fence? You should know that initial consultations are always 100% free of charge. Even if you’re not sure whether or not you want to hire an attorney, there’s no reason not to at least schedule a consultation for some free legal advice. And if we do enter an attorney-client relationship with you, you won’t owe anything out of pocket, ever. We only get paid if we win you a settlement or verdict.
The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.
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