When you're rear-ended while stopped at a red light, it's easy to figure out who's to blame. The same often can't be said, though, in a side impact (sometimes called a "t-bone" or "broadside") crash. Physical evidence at the accident scene, conflicting driver stories, and differing eyewitness accounts can make it tough to say who was at fault.
How is fault decided in a side-impact collision? It depends on the facts of each case. But this much is true: The final decision comes down to the evidence gathered at the scene of the crash or found later. In this article, we'll:
In a side-impact accident, two vehicles collide at something close to a 90-degree angle, with the front end of one vehicle striking the other on the driver's or passenger's side. Side impact crashes can occur in any number of ways, but these are the most common scenarios:
In a rear-end car wreck case, the crash scene pretty much tells the story. One car was stopped in traffic or was waiting at a stop sign or light. The trailing vehicle hit the stopped car from behind. All the evidence points to the culprit, as do the drivers' and eyewitnesses' accounts.
That's rarely the case in a side-impact crash. One vehicle has frontal damage, while the other has side damage. Depending on the force and angle of impact and the road conditions, the vehicles might come to rest near the point of impact or some distance away. Those same factors might also affect the distribution of crash debris.
One or both vehicles might have experienced multiple impacts, either with other cars or with stationary objects like curbs, signs, or light poles. Skid, scrape, or scuff marks might lead both toward and away from the point of impact. In short, a host of factors can make it difficult to tell what happened and who was at fault.
Oftentimes, legal liability for a side-impact collision comes down to reports and testimony from accident or crash scene reconstruction experts. The evidence that's available in a particular case will depend on many factors, including the likely value of resulting injury claims.
In a collision that results in only minor injuries, the evidence probably will be limited to a police report, some photographs, and medical records. If the crash results in catastrophic injuries or death, much more of the evidence we describe below is likely to be on hand.
Be sure to get a complete copy of the police report, including all diagrams, exhibits, and attachments. Try to get the name and badge number of each officer who was at the crash scene, whether responding to the accident or arriving afterward for investigative purposes.
Sometimes the responding police officers create a diagram that shows:
Ideally, the diagram should have accurate measurements of things like how far the vehicles traveled post-impact, the length and depth of marks in the road surface, the size of debris fields, and the length and direction of debris travel.
Photos of the resting places of the vehicles and detailed pictures of the damage to each vehicle will be very important. Photographs of crash debris and skid, scrape, or scuff marks in the roadway will also be helpful.
In addition, get perspective photos showing the view each driver had as they approached the impact point, particularly if those photos show line-of-sight impairment. If possible, get drone pictures from above showing the complete accident scene.
The vehicles involved should not be repaired, sold for scrap, or disposed of until they're no longer needed as evidence. Expert witnesses will want to inspect, photograph, and analyze the vehicles, so they should be stored in secure locations until no longer needed.
If possible, other physical objects involved in the wreck (for example, light poles, traffic control devices, and buildings) should be preserved in their post-accident condition until they're no longer required as evidence.
If vehicles and other objects aren't available (maybe because the value of the case doesn't justify the purchase and storage costs) then at a minimum, get the year, make, and model of each vehicle involved in the crash. If a tractor-trailer rig, cargo, or similar truck was involved, try to find out about any load or cargo being hauled. This information will allow experts to figure out vehicle weights, which will help when determining speeds, braking distances, and post-impact vehicle travel.
Secure the originals of all available videos of the crash and the post-crash scene. Copies will have to be provided to all drivers, their insurers, and attorneys. If the crash caused fatalities or there was possible criminal activity involved (like driving under the influence), police and prosecutors will retain custody of the originals for some time.
If the crash happened at a location controlled by automated traffic lights or where automated lighting systems were present, contact the city or county about getting copies of the data for the time of the crash. Reconstruction experts might want to cross-reference those data with video footage of the scene, if available.
Get photographs of all injuries suffered by all drivers, passengers, and others hurt in the crash.
Records of medical treatment received in the hours and days after the wreck will describe any injuries suffered by drivers, passengers, and others. Blood tests and other lab work will show whether any drivers consumed or were under the influence of intoxicants at the time of the accident.
Contact a weather service to get detailed weather information for the crash site. If weather or road conditions were factors in the crash, try to get weather information for several hours before the accident happened.
Get statements (written or recorded, if possible) from all drivers, passengers, onlookers, and others who claim to have seen all or part of the wreck. Statements should include as much detail as possible about what each witness saw and heard before and at the time of the collision. In addition, ask each witness what they heard others say at the scene, whether before or after the impact.
Accident and crash reconstruction experts can use the evidence described above to make lots of useful findings. For example, using information about road surfaces, road conditions, weather, the vehicles involved, and post-impact travel distances, experts can estimate vehicle speeds at the point of impact.
Experts can also explain angles of impact, post-impact distances and directions of travel, and other vehicle mechanics (like a spin or a rollover). The evidence can be used to describe what happened to drivers and passengers inside the vehicles during and after impact, and to explain how different injuries occurred.
It might be possible, using things like video footage and eyewitness reports, to make findings about who was at fault. Perhaps one driver tried to beat a yellow traffic light. Or maybe a driver was speeding through a parking lot and hit someone pulling out of a parking spot.
An absence of skid marks left by a fast-moving vehicle approaching a stop sign could indicate that the driver never saw the sign. Perspective photos, on the other hand, might show that the driver's view of the sign was obstructed by overgrown trees or other vegetation, suggesting that faulty road maintenance could be partly to blame. Or weather conditions like snow, ice, or other moisture might explain the lack of skid marks.
At a minimum, the evidence will give insurance adjusters and attorneys a more complete picture of what happened, so they can make informed decisions about who or what caused the accident.
If you've been injured in a side-impact car accident, it's important to have a lawyer. When it comes time to establish who was at fault for the crash, you'll find yourself up against experienced lawyers and experts who will look to pin all or most of the blame on you. If they're successful, the value of your case goes down.
If you're going to be in a fight, you want it to be a fair fight. An experienced car accident lawyer will meet the other side's experts with experts who are on your side. Your lawyer will properly characterize your injuries and damages, including your medical bills, lost income, and more subjective damages like "pain and suffering" and "emotional distress."
Keep in mind that you don't get any "do-overs" if you're unhappy with the result you get on your own. The right lawyer will know how to put together your best case and will have the settlement negotiation skills to fight for your best result.
Find out more about when you need a car accident lawyer. You can use the tools on this page to find an experienced lawyer in your area.