A car wreck or collision with a semi-truck happens in the blink of an eye. Once crews have cleaned up the debris from the crash and injured drivers and passengers begin receiving medical care, the hard work of determining fault and responsibility begins.

Any injury accident may have a variety of causes. However, the primary question that insurance adjusters, personal injury lawyers, and the people involved in the wreck ask is: “Who caused this accident?”

How Fault Works in California Car Accidents

When a car crash injures you, the responsible driver must pay for the injuries and damage they caused.

Any drivers who are not at fault are not legally responsible for paying any compensation to any other person, no matter the extent of injuries or property damage sustained by others.

For example, a driver who strikes a car legally parked on the street must pay compensation to the owner of the parked vehicle. The parked car’s owner will not have to pay the at-fault driver.

In most situations, the at-fault driver’s insurer will compensate those harmed in a crash, subject to the policy limits.

For example, if the at-fault driver’s policy limit for property damage is $50,000, then that is the maximum compensation the driver’s policy will pay.

What happens if the compensation paid by the at-fault driver’s insurance won’t cover all of your damages?

In this situation, the injured person’s own insurance company may step in and provide supplemental compensation. This may occur if the at-fault driver is underinsured and the injured person has a policy that covers such situations.

In addition, the injured person can often bring a civil lawsuit against the at-fault driver and seek the additional compensation needed from that driver personally. If the at-fault driver was on the job and behind the wheel when the accident occurred, you might seek compensation from that driver’s employer.

When a trial becomes necessary, an insurance company’s claim that you caused the accident may not convince a judge or jury. However, the insurance company’s fault determination may help an injured party decide how to seek compensation.

It is generally good practice for injured drivers and passengers to visit with a personal injury attorney about their case. A California personal injury attorney is capable of advising these injured parties about who may be potentially liable for paying compensation to them.

Determining Fault Following a California Car Wreck

Insurance companies and their adjusters use several methods to determine what caused a crash. The process is not always easy or speedy. This can frustrate those who need compensation beyond that paid out by the insurance companies after filing an insurance claim.

Insurance companies rarely make fault determinations based on their independent observations alone.

Road crews clean up the wreck before insurance companies and your lawyer get involved after car accidents. The accident scene may change, and people’s memories may get fuzzy before an insurance adjuster can finish their investigation.

Instead, insurance companies will usually rely heavily on the findings of others to make their determination. This includes statements and information provided by their insured clients and other witnesses and investigations conducted by the police.

In some situations, an insurance company may need to resort to outside individuals such as an arbitrator, judge, or jury to determine fault.

Agreement Between Insurance Companies

One of the simplest ways insurance companies determine fault is by simply agreeing with you. Immediately following a car wreck, all of the drivers involved will file claims with their respective insurers. These claims alone may provide sufficient information for insurers to determine fault.

This resolution is most likely when one vehicle strikes a parked or stationary vehicle. When a collision occurs between two or more moving vehicles, the claimants’ statements may not agree, nor will the insurance companies.

Review Driver and Witness Statements

Another easy method by which insurance companies can determine fault is to examine police reports and interview their insured customer. In some cases, the at-fault driver freely and spontaneously admits to witnesses on the scene or to their insurance company that they were at fault in causing the crash.

A driver’s admission to fault carries great weight and typically leads to a quick determination of responsibility against that driver.

The outcome is similar when the at-fault driver makes an admission of fault to others at the scene of the crash. If those individuals report to the police what they heard and what the at-fault driver told them, insurance companies can obtain those reports and interview those witnesses.

Personal injury lawyers also find driver admissions powerful and convincing evidence in lawsuits. Judges and juries tend to place considerable weight on admissions of fault made by a driver following a crash.

Obtaining and Scrutinizing Police Reports

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that police filed over five million reports connected with automobile crashes in one recent year. When the police come to the scene of an injury wreck or other crash, the responding officers collect evidence and witness statements to prepare a report.

They may also reconstruct the crash. Reconstruction is not an exact science, but it does involve reviewing all of the available evidence at the scene of a collision and then attempting to piece together how the crash unfolded.

Police may also note any traffic laws drivers broke immediately before the crash. Witnesses may report having seen one driver speed through a red traffic light. In the case of a T-bone collision at an intersection, police may look to see if one driver had a stop or yield sign that they should have observed and obeyed.

At the end of their investigation, police officers will generally summarize their findings into a final report. In this final report, the investigating officers may give their opinion on how the crash happened and who was at fault.

Personal injury attorneys and insurance companies will invariably get hold of these police reports and review them in detail.

Insurance companies and juries are not required to agree with the conclusion of fault made by the police. Nonetheless, these reports give others reviewing them a fact-based opinion of fault and can identify helpful evidence for others to review.

Participate in Arbitration or out-of-Court Settlements

Drivers do not always freely admit to fault after car wrecks. The statements of witnesses may not be reliable. Police reports may not make a conclusive fault determination. In these situations, insurance companies, their attorneys, and personal injury lawyers may need assistance from other impartial individuals in deciding fault.

One person to whom these companies and individuals may turn is an arbitrator. An arbitrator is a neutral fact-finder who presides over arbitration sessions.

The arbitrator hears evidence from both sides of a dispute and decides the outcome. The arbitrator’s decision often binds the parties.

Arbitration is a mini-trial in which each side can present witnesses and evidence to support their positions. It can save parties some of the expenses related to a full trial in front of a judge or jury.

The various insurance companies involved may also negotiate a settlement. A settlement may or may not acknowledge fault.

Settlements do not always involve a third party. Instead, the parties may negotiate to reach a mutually agreeable outcome.

The terms of a settlement may affect your ability to pursue further compensation for your injuries. For this reason, if you receive a settlement proposal, read it carefully and seek legal counsel before signing.

The outcome of any arbitration or other out-of-court settlement negotiation is only as solid as the evidence and witness testimony considered during the process. If the arbitrator does not have access to all the relevant facts and information, their decision may not reflect who truly is at fault.

Before agreeing to any arbitration or settlement, you should first speak with a personal injury attorney about your case. Because arbitration and settlement awards are final, you cannot pursue additional compensation or appeal adverse decisions.

Proceed to Trial

If no other method establishes fault, you and your insurance company may need to proceed to trial, where a judge or a jury resolves factual disputes and renders a verdict.

At trial, the injured person and their personal injury lawyer will present evidence and call witnesses to show the other party was responsible for the crash. Each side has an opportunity to challenge the credibility and persuasiveness of the other party’s witnesses and evidence.

After the trial, the judge or jury will deliberate and render a verdict. If the losing party believes the court made legal errors, that party may appeal. Appellate courts can overturn 

rulings and require new trials.

Trials are not cheap and rarely occur quickly. Their complexity usually requires professional assistance from a personal injury lawyer.

How Long Does It Take an Insurance Company to Determine Fault?

If a car wreck hurts you or a loved one, the last thing you want to hear is to wait for answers. You need to know whether the other driver involved was at fault, especially if your insurance claim is not sufficient to address all of your expenses. Unfortunately, the process of determining fault is not always quick.

The good news is that once you file a claim with your insurance company, your insurer should pay the claim promptly up to your policy limits. Based on its determination of fault, your insurance company may seek compensation for what it paid to you from the at-fault driver’s insurance company.

In complicated wrecks, it can take more time to determine fault. Cases that proceed to trial can take even longer. An appeal can add additional time to the case.

Determining Fault Requires Careful Investigations

This leads to a simple conclusion: it is not always easy or fast for insurance companies to determine who is at fault after an accident. Although various resources may help them decide, sometimes the only way to determine fault is through arbitration, settlement, or trial.

Instead of who to blame, you may wonder how to file an insurance claim or get compensation for your injuries. Calling a personal injury attorney is the first step to addressing these concerns.