Auto Insurance

How do you determine who’s at fault in a car accident?

By: Alexandra Bosanac on October 19, 2018
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Several years ago, I was in a collision that left me dumbfounded.

It happened in the visitor’s parking section of a condo building: I was backing out of a spot, and a woman who had parked in the space directly in front of mine was pulling out.

My back bumper and her front bumper hit each other. That’s actually an exaggeration. They kissed, briefly.

That’s all that happened. There was no noticeable damage done to either car.

Pretty anti-climatic, right? Not according to the other driver, who was outraged.

I guess her reaction was (partially) justified: she was driving a rental and hadn’t purchased insurance.

I didn’t have my full license yet and I felt totally unprepared for the situation. I apologized profusely and we exchanged phone numbers.

As I went on with my day, the absurdity of the incident gradually sunk in. After all, how could she not see that I was backing out? My car was parked directly in front of hers — kinda hard to miss.

Usually the person who rear-ends another car is found responsible. But we were leaving our parking spaces at exactly the same time. How many things would have to line up for a weird accident like this to happen? I was impressed by our impeccable timing and I was confused —how would an insurance adjuster figure out who was responsible?

Plus, I was worried that an insurance company would take the word of an older, more experienced driver over a twenty-something with a learner’s permit.

It got me thinking about how insurance companies figure out who’s at fault for causing an accident.  

Assigning blame is a science

Before we dive into the nitty gritty of assigning fault, let’s make one thing clear: I should have never admitted any wrongdoing.

Not because I wasn’t partially to blame for the “collision”— but because it wasn’t my call to make. There’s a process for determining blame, as you’ll see, and admissions of guilt can come back to haunt you and make the claims process way more complicated and harder to resolve.

Insurance adjusters assign fault using percentages. If multiple people are found to be at-fault, then the percentage of the blame is split evenly between all parties. It also means that the insurance companies for each party will be charging the respective insured drivers an increase on their auto insurance as a result of the accident. The adjusters will need to all agree on what happened.

How you report the accident matters, too. Being able to use the correct terminology, especially in parking lot collisions, will help paint a clearer picture for the adjusters. For example, if you’re in a mall parking lot, were you exiting the “feeder lane” when a car in the “thoroughfare” struck you? It might feel awkward to talk like a traffic reporter, but the adjusters might take you more seriously. Here’s a glossary to get you started.

So, who gets to set the rules?

There are guidelines around how to divvy up fault. Sometimes it’s regulated provincially — the Financial Services Commision of Ontario (FSCO) sets the parameters and insurance companies operating in the province must refer to it. In other regions, self-regulating organizations within the insurance industry are tasked with writing the rules.

In cases where the collision is severe, the police get involved and make their own report. Insurance adjusters will refer to it as well.  

“But when it comes to specific scenarios that’s the specialty of an insurance adjuster… There can be situations that are a lot more messy and they have to do some PI work to apply fault fairly,” says Rebekah Schinkel, a broker at SmartCoverage Insurance, a brokerage based in Windsor, Ont.

It’s really, really rare to be found 0% at fault

There are a few basic rules that insurance companies rely on to figure out who’s at fault.

For example, did you rear-end the car in front of you? You’re likely to be found 100% culpable.

“You need to be travelling with an accurate amount of space between you and the person ahead of you in case you need to break, that’s the responsibility of the driver behind,” says Schinkel.

But what about a single-vehicle accident — wouldn’t that be considered a victimless incident? Not so fast.

“The easiest way to explain it is you can’t blame the road, the guard rail [or] the deer if yours is the only car involved,” says Schinkel. “In general, that falls on you as the driver to take the necessary steps to prevent the accident,” “If there’s black ice on the road and you slam into the guardrail, yes there was ice, but you should have been driving [in such a way] that you would avoid that.”

Schinkel can only think of one person in her entire career who was eventually exculpated by their insurer.

The dash cam showed that the person [in another car] reversed into them. They submitted the tape to their adjuster and established themselves as 0% at fault,” she recalls.

But the standard of proof needed in order for a driver to be found blameless is pretty high. In cases where the facts are hard to establish, it’s more likely that insurance adjusters will decide that blame should be split fifty-fifty. “Twenty-five or 75% are quite rare,” says Schinkel.

How does all of this impact your rate?

Say you’ve been found to be 50% at fault for an accident. If it’s your first, the answer is not much — at least not immediately.

“Nothing happens until renewal. Your rate is your rate until the next renewal,” says Adam Mitchell, owner of Whitby, Ont.-based brokerage Mitchell and Whale and a broker himself.

“If you bought accident insurance beforehand, it will actually [have zero impact]. It will renew at the same calculated rate,” he adds.

Without special coverage (which typically costs $100 extra per year), being involved in an accident can jack up your rate by as much as 20%.

But getting accident insurance (also known as an accident forgiveness endorsement) is pretty tricky. First of all, it’s calculated on how many years you’ve been driving and you must not have had a single accident in all that time in order to qualify. It’s also based on a star system: one star is awarded for every year you’ve been accident-free.  

“A six-star rating is a perfect record,” says Mitchell. That means you’ve been driving for six years or more and have been completely accident-free.

“If you did have an accident you’d go to a five-star,” he adds. “It’s not as if you’re going down to a zero automatically.”

You also can’t move around insurance companies very easily after you’ve had an at-fault accident.

“If you go to a different company, you start from the bottom [no stars] if you’ve had an accident,” says Mitchell.

If you’re unsure about what to do, wait to file a claim. It’s better to call a claims counsellor first. Here’s why

If you’re still not sure about how much of the blame is yours, you may want to speak with a claims counsellor before talking to your insurance company.

Some insurance carriers offer claims counselling, but this service is traditionally offered by brokers. Conversations with claims counsellors are confidential and they’ll advise you on whether it’s worth filing a claim.

“Our primary interest is what’s in the best interest of the client,” says Schinkel. “We are not obligated to pass it on to the insurance company.”

Final verdict, a.k.a the parking lot exemption

As for the final verdict on that weird collision I was involved in? If there had been any damage, I probably would’ve been 50% at fault.

“When it comes to parking lots, it’s almost always joint fault unless your car is in park or turned off in the incident,” says Schinkel. “If it’s not even running and it hit you and you weren’t in motion, clearly not your fault. If both vehicles are in motion, almost always in the wrong.”

Good thing I didn’t leave a scratch.