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A Multi-Car Pileup: Who Is Liable?

At the best of times, determining fault in a car accident can be difficult. Every little detail matters and every person has a part to play. Police officers and lawyers have to put the pieces together to decide who contributed to which part of the incident.

This process becomes vastly more complicated when there are more than two cars involved. One person may be more at fault than another, and it may not be obvious who that is.

Negligence Models

Contributory Negligence

Different models determine how negligence is ruled in different states. Some states use a “contributory negligence” model. In most situations, the law assumes that everyone had at least some part to play in an injury. In a slip and fall case, for example, the court may want to hear details like how fast the person was walking. If they were in a full sprint on an icy day, it’s hard to make the case that someone else was completely responsible for the fall.

These factors become especially relevant in a car accident case. Everyone involved was expected to follow traffic laws, and in all likelihood, everyone had some responsibility for the accident.

In a contributory negligence model, the judge will determine who is more at fault, the plaintiff or the defendant. If the judge rules that the defendant, the person being sued, is more at fault, they will rule against them. The defendant will be expected to pay the damages. If the plaintiff, the person suing the defendant, is found to be more at fault, the case can be thrown out. Only four states use this model.

Comparative Negligence

Most states use a model called “comparative negligence.” In this model, the judge looks at the facts of the case and determines a certain percentage of liability to each person. Let’s say a car is crossing at a four-way stop, and another car, coming from the left, hits them. Person A is hit, and Person B is the driver who hit them. It sounds like an open-and-shut case.

What if, however, Person A was speeding? Perhaps they hadn’t come to a complete stop. Maybe it wasn’t their turn, and Person B had the right of way. Now the situation becomes more complicated, and the judge needs to decide just how much everyone was at fault for the accident. This is when they rule and assign the percentages.

The judge agrees that Person A had gone ahead when it wasn’t their turn. However, Person B was busy digging into her purse when she went forward. Although she had every reason to believe the path was clear, she should have been paying attention to the road. The court decides that Person A, the plaintiff, was 55% responsible for the accident, and Person B, the defendant, was 45% responsible.

In most states, these percentages would have the case thrown out. They operate on a “51” rule. If the plaintiff was 51% or more responsible for the accident, they cannot receive compensation. Florida does not operate this way. It uses a “pure comparative negligence” model.

Florida and Pure Comparative Negligence

In pure comparative negligence, a plaintiff can receive damages for an accident, even if they were 99% responsible for that accident. It works like this: The judge determines a total amount of compensation and awards the plaintiff a percentage of that amount. The plaintiff receives a percent total to the defendant’s fault.

Let’s simplify that, using our example above:

  • Total damages for the accident: $30,000
  • Plaintiff’s percentage of fault: 55%
  • Defendant’s percentage of fault: 45%

In this example, the plaintiff is entitled to $13,500, which is 45% of $30,000. This is equal to the defendant’s percentage of fault in the case.

Comparative Negligence in a Pileup

Once you start to consider a pileup, you can see how complicated comparative negligence becomes. First, it may be difficult to figure out who can be sued. You and your lawyer must determine beforehand if you should sue one individual or file multiple suits against several different drivers.

The next item to consider is the judge’s ruling. If every driver had a part to play, the percentages start to thin out. The judge has to hit the number 100, so you could be looking at one driver who was 5% responsible, another who was 23% at fault, etc. A skilled lawyer will help strategize beforehand. They know which scenario will be most reasonable and how to present the evidence. They can argue for reasonable percentages and help sway the judge’s rulings.

Sometimes, determining liability is easy enough. There was a line of cars waiting perfectly still, obeying all the rules, when an out-of-control vehicle hit the last car in the line. Like dominos, the cars hit one another in a straight line. In that scenario, the driver who hit the first car is completely responsible.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the situation would play out that cleanly. Let’s create a scenario and see how complicated in can get:

One car hits another, causing a four-car pileup, and the first car hits a pedestrian. Sounds simple, but let’s consider these options:

  • The pedestrian was in the middle of the street tying his shoe, while the crosswalk was counting down to “STOP.”
  • Car A, the car in front that hit the pedestrian, was over the line.
  • The driver of Car B, the second car, had her foot off the brake. She was an appropriate distance from Car A, but since she wasn’t at a full stop, she shot forward, hitting Car A.
  • Car C, the third car, was in the middle of abruptly changing lanes, cutting off Car D.
  • Car D, the last car in the line that caused the pileup, hit Car C only because Car C cut in front of her.

Now who is at fault? Car D may have caused the pileup, but only because someone jumped in front of her. The pedestrian doesn’t seem so innocent now that you know they weren’t walking as they should have, do they?

Seek a Skilled Lawyer

This is where the services of a good lawyer are indispensable. If you were caught in the middle of such a pileup, you’re probably in need of financial help. Car repairs and medical bills may be piling up. You could be missing work while you recover. At some point, you just need a responsible party to step up and help out.

First off, your lawyer will investigate witness testimony. Every set of eyes saw a different part of the accident, and a good lawyer’s detective skill will go to work.  Your lawyer will collate the stories of all the drivers and all outside observers, creating a larger picture of the event. This person saw that Car D hit first, but that person saw the moment when Car C cut the line.

Next, your attorney will survey the physical evidence. Just like every eyewitness account creates a larger story, so does every scratch and impact. Tire marks can reveal whether someone was telling the truth about being at a full stop. The placement of impact reveals where a car was hit and how hard. Comparing the dents on Car C with Car D, do the driver’s accounts add up? These are the kinds of questions an attorney can answer.

Lawyers are here to help sift through the details of a suit to provide the best results. If you’ve been hurt in a pileup, reach out to us today. Free consultations are available, so contact us online or call (850) 764-0383.

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