What Does At Fault Mean in a Car Accident?

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At fault: close up shot of cars that crashed into each other

Every year, more than 5 million car accidents occur in the United States alone—or just over 16,000 per day. This alarming statistic underscores the importance of defensive driving and the need for car insurance. But beyond these aspects, learning who’s at fault in an accident, what at fault means, and how an at-fault accident affects your car insurance rates is crucial to every driver.

Hopefully, you never have to put this knowledge to the test, but by understanding the basics, you can know exactly what to do moving forward.

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What Does “At Fault” Mean in a Car Accident?

An at-fault car accident is an incident where one driver ignored traffic laws, took actions, or failed to take actions that resulted in a car accident. Depending on how the accident occurred, a driver can be between 51% to 100% at fault for an accident depending on the details in the police report or the investigation of an insurance claims adjuster.

The driver deemed at fault in an accident must compensate the other driver for property damage and medical bills through their own insurance, known as liability coverage. Required in all states except for Virginia (which allows drivers to opt out) and New Hampshire (where it isn’t mandatory) liability insurance is the minimum coverage you’re required to have by law.

The liability policy limits you need are also based on state law, which you often see denoted as three numbers with slashes in between, such as 25/50/25. This refers to bodily injury liability per person, bodily injury liability per accident, and property damage liability per accident.

What If the At-Fault Driver Doesn’t Have Insurance?

Although insurance is required in 48 states, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that 12.6% of drivers don’t carry any coverage. If you’re at fault in an accident without liability coverage, you have to pay for the other driver’s medical expenses and property damage out of pocket or face potentially expensive and lengthy litigation or a lawsuit.

Long story short — you should always have a car insurance policy if you want to make your life just a little bit easier.

Does My Insurance Cover Me If I’m At Fault In an Accident?

If you have liability coverage only and are at fault in an accident, your insurance will not cover any car repairs or injury claims to you or your vehicle. You’re responsible for all medical payments out of pocket or through your health insurance coverage, as well as the cost to repair vehicle damage.

The only way that you would get reimbursement for property damage and medical bills is if you have additional policies. Collision coverage reimburses you for the cost of vehicle repairs after an accident regardless of fault, as long as you pay the deductible first. If you’re injured, MedPay takes care of your medical bills whether you were at fault or not.

Examples of At-Fault Car Accidents

Woman talking on the phone while looking at her damaged car

To paint a clearer picture of who’s at fault in a car accident and to answer the question of what at fault means, let’s look at a few examples of at-fault car accidents:

  • Colliding with another car because you were distracted, such as texting and driving, talking on your phone, or fiddling with the radio
  • Ignoring or disobeying traffic laws, signs, and signals, regardless of whether you do so willfully or not
  • Reckless driving, including excessive speeding or drag racing
  • Driving under the influence
  • Rear-ending another motorist

How Much Do Car Insurance Rates Increase After an At-Fault Accident?

Car insurance rates will undoubtedly increase after an accident. The question is just how much of an increase you might see. Depending on your insurance company, an at-fault accident can cause your insurance premium to increase by anywhere from 34% to 50%.

Interestingly, you may see an increase of up to 16% on your car insurance rates when you weren’t at fault in an accident. Seems like a raw deal, right? According to many insurance companies, your rates increase any time you’re in an accident or file a claim due to an increase in perceived risk. Again, driving defensively and cautiously can help you avoid a costly insurance increase.

Understanding Your State’s Negligence Laws

In some instances, the at-fault driver is 100% to blame for an accident, but this isn’t always the case. This is where things get a bit murky in terms of legality. Every state has its own negligence laws that determine if you can seek payment for damages and how much you’re legally eligible to receive.

By understanding the negligence laws in your state, you can determine how much compensation you’re eligible to receive based on the findings of the police or the insurance adjuster. Here are the five types of negligence laws:

  • Slight or gross comparative negligence: Only used in South Dakota, this law states that you can seek compensation in an accident where your at-fault level is considered “slight” and the other motorist’s blame is considered “gross” (which typically means blatant). However, no legal definition applies to slight or gross.
  • Pure comparative negligence: According to this law, you can seek compensation based on your level of responsibility. For example, if you were 25% at fault, you can seek 75% reimbursement for medical bills or damages (or vice-versa).
  • Modified comparative negligence (50%): This type of law states that you cannot collect compensation if you are 50% or more at fault in an accident.
  • Modified comparative negligence (51%): This negligence law says you cannot collect compensation if you’re 51% at fault or more in an accident.
  • Contributory negligence: In contributory negligence states, you cannot seek compensation or damages from the other driver’s insurance unless they are 100% at fault. Even if you’re deemed 1% at fault, the other driver’s insurance company has no legality to compensate you.

If you aren’t too keen on learning the ins and outs of each of these types of negligence laws, here are the states that use each type:

  • Slight or gross comparative negligence: South Dakota
  • Pure comparative negligence: Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington
  • Modified comparative negligence (50%): Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Nebraska, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Utah
  • Modified comparative negligence (51%): Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming
  • Contributory negligence: Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

What Is a No-Fault State?

There are 38 at-fault states plus the District of Columbia. So what about the other 12?

These are known as no-fault states. In no-fault states, the laws and doctrines that you would find in an at-fault state are null and void. As the name would imply, no one is specifically at fault.

While these states still require you to carry liability coverage, you don’t file a claim with the at-fault driver’s insurance company. Instead, you file a claim with your own insurance company. This is known as no-fault insurance.

These states also require you to carry personal injury protection, or PIP coverage, which covers your medical bills if you’re deemed at fault in an accident.

The twelve no-fault states are:

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

Shop Around to Avoid At-Fault Accident Insurance Rate Hikes

Friends happily riding a car

If your car insurance rate increases due to an at-fault accident, you may feel like you have to bite the bullet and pay the excess. However, affordable auto insurance after an accident isn’t as far away as it might seem.

The key to better rates is straightforward: Shop car insurance quotes with Compare.com. By simply inputting your information, you can compare quotes from some of the best insurance companies in the business and secure a new policy in as little as an hour. With the easy-to-use interface and instant quotes, finding insurance has never been easier. 

Enter your ZIP code below to get the insurance coverage you need after an at-fault accident without breaking the bank:

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