In California, who has to pay for a car accident is often a question of fault. A driver is said to be at fault for an accident if he or she caused the accident by breaking the law or behaving unsafely or negligently. As a general rule, the party at fault for the accident is expected to compensate the victim or victims and cannot expect to receive compensation from the other party.
Sometimes, assessing fault is easy. A driver who rolls through a stop sign and into oncoming traffic has a clear responsibility for the accident. Similarly, if one driver in an accident was speeding or turning illegally and the other was not, the question of fault is relatively simple. Failure to yield, failure to signal a turn, and lapses in concentration are all common reasons for courts to decide one driver was at fault and another was not. Drivers are also responsible for maintaining their own vehicles. A driver who fails to change his brake pads cannot avoid liability by claiming that he tried to stop, because failing to maintain the vehicle renders him responsible.
Of course, drivers are expected to change their behavior in accordance with conditions. A few feet might be a reasonable stopping distance on a clear road, but on a rainy night trailing drivers are expected to give other cars more space. As a result, issues like time of day, weather conditions, and traffic density can all play important roles in determining fault.
In many cases, both drivers are at least partially at fault for a collision. When two cars hit each other while merging on a freeway or backing up in a parking lot, it’s usually very difficult for insurance adjusters to assign blame to one party or the other, for example. In these sorts of circumstances, the parties often agree to share liability for the accident. In these cases, both drivers are said to be at fault, but neither is said to be fully at fault. As a result of agreements like this, insurance companies for both parties usually negotiate compensation in accordance with the degree to which their customers were at fault.