Who Decides Fault in an Car Accident under Texas Law?
Fault is a big decision in a car accident. It either makes or breaks a case and can mean whether you win or lose. But who decides “fault” in a car accident? Well, the short answer is that fault is a decision made by many individuals in a car accident based on several factors. But the ultimate decision is made by a judge or a jury if the issue of fault remains disputed.
The Investigating Officer.
The first person who will probably make some sort of decision of fault in a car accident is the investigating officer. When there is an auto collision, Texas Transportation Code Sec. 550.041 provides that the responding police officer has the authority to conduct an investigation of the collision and make a report about the factors contributing to the crash.
The officer will come to the scene and speak with each driver to get their version of events. The officer will also talk to any witnesses that stay at the scene and cooperate in their investigation. In my long career as a car accident attorney in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, I have had many occasions where the officer even witnessed the accident. If available, the officer will even look at video from dash-cams or surrounding businesses.
Once the officer gathers all the information, a crash report will be generated. The crash report will include all the relevant information on the drivers, the vehicle information, insurance information, etc. Then, the officer will write a short narrative about how the accident happened and will provide an opinion about fault.
The police report is a very useful tool in deciding fault. But it is just a tool. The police officer’s opinion is not the “end-all, be-all” of who is at fault. Sometimes, the police report gets it wrong. If that is the case, then you might have an uphill battle in proving otherwise.
The Police May Not Come Out.
There may be 100 (or more) car accidents in Dallas, Texas, on any given day. That does not include Fort Worth, and the DFW surrounding areas like Plano, Arlington, Carrollton, Grand Prairie, Grapevine, Denton, McKinney, and so on.
So, police may not come out to an accident scene especially if it is a relatively minor collision. If there are no serious injuries and the vehicles are drivable, the drivers will be instructed to simply exchange information and handle the claims through the insurance companies.
In these circumstances, it becomes even more important to gather as much of the necessary information as possible. If the other driver is being uncooperative or unwilling to provide the necessary information, then an officer may be called out to help.
The Insurance Adjuster.
After the insurance claims are filed, the insurance adjusters will conduct their own investigation. They will collect the police report as well as talk to their driver and eye-witnesses.
Most of the time, the adjuster’s decision about fault follows the police report. But sometimes it doesn’t. The adjuster is free to disagree with the police report and make their own decision about who is at fault. Also, the adjuster may agree with their own driver and sometimes they will disagree with their own driver.
But in the end, the insurance adjuster should decide fault as objectively as possible. I say they “should” be objective. But that is not always the case. Many times the adjuster may make a decision based upon irrelevant factors. For instance, if you are not represented by an attorney, an adjuster might put fault on you simply because you cannot fight back. Other times, the adjuster might simply ignore you and not make any decision at all because you don’t have an attorney. But, for the most part, the adjuster will make some sort of decision regarding fault in order to help move the claim along.
Can’t Agree Who is at Fault?
What happens if fault remains undecided or if the parties cannot agree. Well, the ultimate decision is made in the courts. If the parties cannot agree on who is at fault in the accident, then the decision will have to made in court, either by a judge or a jury.
The courts are the ultimate decision maker of who was “negligent” in the accident. Additionally, the judge or jury is not bound by the police report or any other previous decisions about fault. They are free to make their own decision based upon the evidence presented. Only the evidence admissible in court will be used to determine negligence. Such evidence might include the police report, photographs, testimony of the drivers and witnesses, and maybe even expert witnesses, if necessary.
Once a judge or jury decides who is negligent, that decision is final and all parties have to abide by the decision.
Can Fault be Shared Between the Parties?
Absolutely! Texas is a “comparative negligence” state. That means more than one person can be at fault in an accident. If that is the case, then each party will be assessed a percentage of fault. For example, the defendant may be found 80% negligent, and the plaintiff may be found 20% negligent. If that happens, then the plaintiff’s damages will be reduced by 20%.
But, if the Plaintiff is found to be more than 50% at fault, then the Plaintiff collects nothing. That’s right. Nothing! Even if the defendant is 49% negligent, and the plaintiff is 51% negligent, the Plaintiff collects nothing.
Getting Legal Representation is Important.
This is why I always tell my clients: “When you are involved in a car wreck, you are not dealing with an insurance claim…. You are dealing with a legal claim.” In other words, you always have to look at the situation as a potential lawsuit. That is because the courts are the final stage in your case. Therefore, it is very important to prepare your claim as if it might end up in court.
When you do that, then you get the attention of the insurance adjusters and might be able to convince them of your version of the events. Therefore, early and thorough preparation is the key to the success of your case. Hiring an experienced car accident attorney is the best way to do that. And getting an experienced car accident attorney on your side is just a free consultation away.