Determining the responsible party for a car accident can sometimes be tricky. There is often a difference between who actually caused an accident and who legally is at fault. Understanding who is at fault will have ramifications on whose insurance will be required to pay for damage to vehicles and properties, and which driver might be held liable for personal injuries.

In general, the driver responsible for an accident (and by extension, that driver’s insurance carrier) will have to pay for all damages caused by the accident. However, many states have complicated systems of determining fault, whereby a percentage of the blame can be assigned to each driver that had any part in causing or failing to avoid the accident. This can result in different monetary obligations for each party to an accident and their respective insurance providers.

In most instances, any driver violating traffic law will be held largely responsible for a resulting car accident. If one of the drivers is issued a citation for speeding, running a light, or another violation, he or she will most likely be primarily at fault, and carry the heaviest burden of the resulting liability. However, this is not a universal truth. Take, for example, a driver who cuts across several lanes of traffic to turn, causing cars behind him to slam on their brakes. One driver fails to stop in time, rear-ending another vehicle. While the accident was caused primarily by the reckless, lane-crossing turn of the first driver, who may be cited, the driver who failed to stop in time will primarily be at fault (and may also be cited for following too closely). Vehicles in the rear are usually in the best position to avoid an accident, and will normally be at fault if an accident occurs, even if it resulted from the actions of another.

To support your claim or defense regarding fault in an accident, you should immediately begin collecting evidence at the scene. Record any comments made by the other drivers after the accident. Police reports and insurance claims often reference one driver’s (often inadvertent) admission of guilt after an accident, as well, and can be invaluable in court. If one driver says something like, “I’m sorry for hitting you” or “I didn’t see you,” try to assign him or her all or most of the blame for the accident.

Similarly, witnesses to an accident will often have a definite opinion about fault in an accident, regardless of legal requirements or who is ultimately cited by the police. Record witnesses’ names and phone numbers, and ask them to relate their account of the accident, including the reason why they think one or the other of the drivers is at fault.

Of course, the ultimate determination of who is at fault will be a combination of admissions by the drivers, statements by witnesses, citations by police, and the sound reasoning of a judge and/or jury. Nevertheless, if you can build a solid case for fault it is often possible to settle a case well before a final determination on the merits by a court. For that reason, if you or someone you know has been injured or suffered property damage in a car accident, whether you/they are being blamed for the accident or not, it is wise to immediately contact an attorney specializing in personal injury law. These attorneys will almost always offer a free initial consultation, and usually their services are paid on a contingency basis, meaning you do not pay out of pocket, but share a percentage of any recovery with the attorney after receiving a favorable settlement or judgment.