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Liability: Who Is At Fault?

There are a lot of things people do everyday while driving that are technically against the law, yet ordinarily not given a second thought.  The law requires a person to turn into the inside lane when making a turn, yet people often make wide turns.  The law requires a person to leave sufficient space between the front of their own vehicle and the back of the vehicle in front of them, yet rush hour on Interstate 5 is a mess of bumper to bumper cars every single day.  The law requires a person to slow down at a yellow light, yet it is common for a person to speed up in order to beat the red light.  For more information and a complete listing of the Rules of the Road, see RCW Chapter 46.61.

 The list of infractions committed by drivers on a daily basis goes on and on, and generally isn’t considered a big deal.  In lieu of an accident, the consequence for committing one of these infractions is simply a traffic ticket, and the maximum punishment for a traffic ticket is a monetary penalty.  However, when the committing of an infraction is the cause of an accident, the consequences can be far reaching. 

 The term “liability” refers to the state of being responsible for something.  A person who causes an accident is liable for the damages stemming from that accident.  However, determining who is liable for an accident isn’t always easy.

 The determination of liability begins with the police officers who respond to the scene of an accident.  The police will speak with all involved, look at the damage to the vehicles involved, and, more often than not, issue a citation to the person they deem to be at fault.  It’s important to note that, although a citation is evidence of negligence, it isn’t determinative of liability.  Simply stated, just because a police officer issued a ticket to a person doesn’t mean that person will ultimately be held responsible for the accident. 

The ultimate determination of liability comes from the insurance companies who insure the involved parties.  As soon as the claim is reported, each insurance company will first take a recorded statement from their own insured.  Sometimes, this alone is sufficient to determine liability.  For example, if a person reports a claim to their own insurance company and admits full responsibility for the accident (“I was talking on my cell phone and didn’t see him”), the insurance company will accept liability and proceed forward on the claim.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, sometimes liability is hotly contested and becomes a “he-said-she-said” situation where it’s one person’s word against another.  When this occurs, the insurance company (or companies) will often launch an investigation and look into every last bit of evidence to assist them in the determination.

 Where liability is contested, especially where a person doesn’t have insurance of their own to fight for them on the issue, it can be a complete nightmare for a person to deal with.  It is especially frustrating when a person knows with complete certainty that the other party is lying or otherwise trying to avoid liability.  The best thing a person can do to avoid finding themselves in this situation is to document every detail of the accident- take pictures of the vehicles before moving them off the road, take pictures of the damage to each vehicle, get contact information for any witnesses, etc.  The best thing a person can do once they find themselves in this situation is to consult with an attorney.    

 As a last resort, if a person is in disagreement with the determination of liability by the involved insurance companies, they can file a lawsuit with the court and take the matter to trial for a judge or jury to determine.  It is rare that a claim requires this, but the option is always there.  In any matter involving disputed liability, it is important to consult with an attorney who can advise you as to the best actions to take in your particular situation.