Rear-Ended: Accident Liability and Compensation

Rear-end collisions are common, and fault is usually (but not always) straightforward, but what about proving injury?

By , J.D. · Villanova University School of Law
Updated by David Goguen, J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

Rear-end collisions are the most common type of car accident, making up around 30 percent of all traffic accidents every year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The aftermath of any car accident can be difficult. But if you've been injured in a rear-end collision, it can be particularly challenging to get reasonable compensation from the at-fault driver's insurance company. It's important to know how you can make these collisions less likely, and to know what to do if you've been rear-ended.

What Is a Rear-End Car Accident?

In a rear-end traffic accident, the point of impact is where the front end of the tailing driver's vehicle meets the rear end of the leading vehicle. In most rear-end collision scenarios, the leading vehicle has slowed down considerably or come to a complete stop, and the tailing driver has failed to notice or anticipate the leading driver's action.

Rear-end accidents can range from minor, low-speed collisions where there's no visible vehicle damage and no injuries, to forceful crashes resulting in extensive damage and serious injuries to drivers and passengers.

Common Causes of Rear-End Car Accidents

A rear-end collision can occur in almost any driving situation, but the majority of these accidents are the result of:

  • distracted driving on the part of the tailing driver (texting, other device use, eating, or doing anything else that takes attention from the road)
  • the tailing driver following too closely/tailgating behind the lead driver; drivers are legally required to keep a minimum safe distance between their vehicle and the vehicle in front of them; and
  • weather conditions; the presence of ice and snow on the roadway can make it harder for the tailing driver to come to a stop; rain, fog, and even the sun's glare can affect both drivers' visibility, so if the lead driver has to slam on the brakes, the tailing driver might not have sufficient time to stop, especially if they're following too closely for the current conditions.

Common Injuries Resulting From Rear-End Car Accidents

Because of the circumstances of most rear-end crashes—the leading driver's vehicle is struck from behind, and there's no opportunity to brace for impact— common injuries suffered by drivers and passengers in the leading vehicle often include:

  • "whiplash"-like neck injuries, caused by the rapid backward-and-forward movement of the head on impact
  • back/spine injuries, especially slipped discs and other kinds of damage to the upper (cervical) vertebrae (C1 to C7), and
  • head injuries/concussion resulting from the force of impact and/or the head hitting the steering wheel, the dashboard, or another occupant.

Is Fault Automatic In a Rear-End Accident?

Whatever the cause and resulting injuries, when it comes to fault for a car accident, it usually doesn't get more straightforward than a rear-end crash. Except in a limited number of situations, the driver who rear-ends another vehicle is almost always going to be found negligent, and therefore at fault for the car accident. There are a few rare instances where the lead vehicle bears some level of liability for a rear-end collision, such as:

  • "brake-checking" the tailing driver (slamming on the brakes without a valid reason)
  • reversing suddenly
  • continuing to drive with a mechanical problem or flat tire and not using hazard lights or pulling over, and
  • not repairing a broken brake light or other faulty equipment.

Absent one of these scenarios (or a similar one), the determination of accident liability is pretty straightforward, and a key legal issue in a car accident case can be resolved fairly quickly. Another big issue is figuring out how much your rear-end accident injury claim is worth, and making sure you come away from your car insurance claim or lawsuit with a fair result. This is where things can get tricky, especially if your injuries are the kind that don't necessarily show up on an x-ray, MRI exam, or other diagnostic tools.

Your Compensation Options For Injuries After a Rear-End Collision

If you're making a car accident injury claim as the leading driver (the one who was hit from behind) after a rear-end accident, the first thing to know is that car insurance coverage will largely dictate how your claim proceeds (and often, how much you'll receive).

Starting the Car Insurance Claim Process

If the at-fault driver has sufficient liability coverage to pay for your injuries, vehicle damage, and other car accident-related losses, your car accident case will likely start with a claim under that coverage. An insurance claim you file directly with the other driver's insurance company is called a "third party" claim. After a rear-end accident, your own insurance company can probably help you get the third party claim process started. They may even take certain steps on your behalf in this situation, and work with the at-fault driver's insurer to try to resolve your claim.

You might be able to start the insurance claim process yourself online, using the "Start a Claim" tool or other information submission via the insurance company's app or website. You can always call the insurance company and get instructions on opening a claim over the phone too.

Keep in mind that filing the claim is just the start of the insurance process. If it's a third party claim (you're not dealing with your own insurer, in other words), the insurer will investigate the accident and how it happened, talk to any witnesses, and request and review your medical records to get a sense of the nature and extent of your car accident injuries. Learn more about how insurance adjusters handle a personal injury claim.

Even while the insurance company's investigation is ongoing, you'll almost certainly get a settlement offer early on, and this offer will almost certainly be low. Especially if your injuries are significant and you're still receiving medical treatment, it's almost always best to politely decline to discuss any kind of settlement until you've fully healed, or at least until you understand the full extent of your injuries and their impact on your life. Once you accept a settlement, you can't later go back and ask for more money even if it turns out your injuries are much worse than you first thought.

Rear-End Accidents In No-Fault States

If you live in one of the dozen or so states that follow some variation of a no-fault car insurance system, you won't be making any kind of insurance claim (or filing a lawsuit against the at-fault driver), at least not initially. You'll turn first to your own "personal injury protection" car insurance coverage regardless of who caused the accident, even if it was obviously the tailing driver's fault. You can only step outside of no-fault and make a claim against the at-fault driver in certain circumstances. Learn more about how no-fault car insurance works after a car accident.

Filing a Car Accident Lawsuit

If you and the insurance company are too far apart on the fair value of your car accident claim, and things are at a standstill settlement-wise, you may need to escalate things by filing a car accident lawsuit in court. The key things to keep in mind here are the statute of limitations deadline for getting the case filed in court, and the importance of having an experienced car accident lawyer on your side once things progress to the court-based stage of things. Learn more about filing a personal injury lawsuit.

No matter how your car accident case progresses, in or out of court, getting compensation for injuries can get complicated and more than a little frustrating, especially if your injuries are of the "whiplash" variety.

Whiplash Injuries After a Rear-End Car Accident

"Whiplash" is a common neck injury that results from rear-end collisions. When a driver is rear-ended, it can cause the head to whip backward, causing injuries to the neck, shoulders, and upper back.

Often, these are soft issue injuries, usually in the form of strains and sprains to the muscles and tendons in the neck. Soft tissue injuries are notoriously difficult to prove and quantify. Unlike a torn muscle, broken bone, or nerve damage, it's not always easy to identify a strain or sprain injury. And even when strains and sprains are evident in medical tests, such as an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), it's hard to prove the extent of the injury. Much of the time, the primary measure of the whiplash injury will be subjective complaints of pain and discomfort, such as headaches, neck pain, blurred vision, shoulder and back pain, and trouble concentrating. But impact on a claimant's life can be significant with whiplash injures (and that impact is a compensable part of "pain and suffering" in a car accident injury claim).

What does this all mean? First, drivers who have been rear-ended have the opportunity to exaggerate their injuries. Second, car insurance adjusters are going to be skeptical of claimed whiplash injuries.

What To Do After the Accident to Hold the At-Fault Driver Accountable

After any kind of car accident, including a rear-end impact collision, it's important to take certain steps to protect yourself and any claim you end up making over the crash.

  • Exchange information with the other drivers involved in the crash (names, addresses, insurance coverage information, driver's license numbers).
  • Get the names and contact information of anyone else involved in the accident (passengers), and any witnesses who might have seen all or any part of crash.
  • Take photos of the accident scene. Be sure to capture the position of the vehicles, to clearly show it was a rear-end accident. Take pictures of all vehicle damage, any stop signs or other signage, and anything else that might be relevant to the accident and how it happened.
  • Write down or otherwise note the names of businesses in the area, or any ownership/management signage related to nearby buildings, parking garages, or other property, especially if you see security cameras on the property.
  • If a law enforcement officer came to the scene of the accident, be sure to get a copy of any police report that's generated in connection with the crash. Especially with rear-end accidents, the police report might contain the officer's notes or findings as to how the accident likely happened, and where fault may lie.
  • Contact your car insurance company and let them know about the accident.
  • Get medical treatment at the first sign of pain or discomfort, or any indication that something just doesn't feel right with any part of your body.

What About Vehicle Damage After a Rear-End Collision?

Getting compensation for vehicle damage after a rear-end car accident is usually pretty uneventful. Since everyone will typically agree on liability (who was at fault for the accident), and damage to the vehicle is a fairly objective determination, most insurance companies will quickly pay a rear-end accident victim's vehicle damage claim.

So, whether you make a vehicle damage claim through the at-fault driver's insurance company (considered a "third party" claim) or through your own collision coverage (if you have it), unless there are issues with the vehicle damage repair estimate (if your car is fixable) or with the determination of your vehicle's "actual cash value" (if it's deemed a "total loss"), resolution of the vehicle damage side of things should be fairly straightforward.

Do You Need a Lawyer After a Rear-End Crash?

If you've been injured in a rear-and vehicle accident, having an experienced legal professional on your side can be the difference in getting a favorable outcome. Especially if your injuries are of the soft tissue variety but they're having a big impact on your life, and the insurance company won't come to the table with a reasonable settlement offer, hiring a lawyer might be the key to a fair result.

You can use the features on this page to connect with a car accident lawyer in your area. Learn more about when it might be time to hire a car accident lawyer and how car accident lawyers are paid.

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