Some jurisdictions allow car crash victims to file rebuttal police reports. Somewhat similarly, some insurance companies allow victims to appeal or challenge fault determinations. However, for the most part, it’s very difficult to dispute car accident fault.

Fortunately, a fault determination usually doesn’t matter. Liability for damages is, in the end, the only determination that matters. The difference between fault and liability is like the difference between a betting spread and a final score. The spread is basically a comparison of the teams on paper. After the game, the spread doesn’t matter.

Fault is an initial determination based on evidence at the accident scene. Liability is a final determination based not only on initially available evidence, but also on other evidence and certain legal doctrines.


Proof in a car crash case usually includes the police accident report, which was mentioned above, crash damage patterns, and witness statements.

Many people dispute fault because, in many cases, the police report is incomplete or inaccurate. If Jim tries to cross the street and Mike hits and kills him, the police report only contains one side of the story. That doesn’t mean Mike lied. It simply means that we all remember things selectively.

Witnesses often remember things differently than participants. Since witnesses have nothing to gain or lose, their memories are a little less selective.

Crash damage patterns are often game changers as well. Let’s go back to Mike and Jim. If Mike’s car is messed up on the driver front side, that indicates Jim crossed in front of him. However, if the damage is on the passenger front side, Jim most likely stepped into the street without looking both ways.

Surveillance camera evidence is often important as well. Generally, a picture really is worth a thousand words. Moreover, if they’re working properly, cameras are never wrong or biased. This evidence is rarely available during brief fault investigations. Most police investigators and insurance adjusters want to end these investigations as quickly as possible. If they want to watch TV, they’ll do that at home.

Legal Doctrines

Since we’re on the subject of pedestrian accidents, let’s talk about the sudden emergency defense. This doctrine is one of several that could affect fault/liability issues. A scene from the 1995 classic Tommy Boy illustrates both prongs of the sudden emergency defense, which are:

  • Unexpected Emergency : A hood fly-up, like a lightning strike or tire blow-out, is a true sudden emergency. Items like jaywalking pedestrians, stopped-short cars, and vehicles that cut across multiple lanes  are everyday hazards, not sudden emergencies. Under the duty of care, motorists must anticipate and avoid everyday hazards.
  • Reasonable Reaction : After a crash, most people pull over, help victims if possible, and wait for emergency responders. Tommy didn’t react reasonably to the hood fly-up. Instead, he drove recklessly. So, in a hypothetical lawsuit, Tommy would be liable for damages, even though the hood fly-up is a sudden emergency.

Comparative fault also affects the fault/liability question. Basically, this legal doctrine shifts part of the blame from the tortfeasor (negligent driver) to the victim. If Jim really did step into the street without looking both ways, he and Mike were each partially responsible for the wreck.

Exact comparative fault law varies in different states. Usually, if the tortfeasor was at least 50 percent responsible for the wreck, the victim is entitled to a proportionate share of damages.

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