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All over the country, car accidents happen. In many of those cases, it is relatively clear whose fault it was, like when a person is rear-ended while stopped at a red light.  Insurance companies will typically admit fault in those cases. In other cases, in my experience commonly involving multiple cars or questions about the right-of-way, the drivers and their insurance companies will dispute whose fault it was.

Advising people what to do in that scenario can be very challenging. The first aspect of the case I want to know about is what is at stake: Are you injured? What are your injuries? What are your medical expenses? Is your car damaged? How much damage is there? What about wage loss? Knowing what the case is or can be can help me decide whether it will ultimately be helpful for a lawyer to get involved.

For example, in many cases, a person is uninjured, has relatively low property damage, or medical expenses were minimal.  If those hard-dollar amounts are less than $5,000, I will typically direct you to try and handle as much of it as you can through your own insurance. For the remaining amounts, small claims court can be a good avenue of relief, and I will give you a sense of how I might go about putting the case for liability together. If the stakes are higher—serious injuries, high property damage amounts, or your insurance is insufficient—it may be a good idea for a lawyer to step in to help with the liability investigation.

Liability investigations can be tricky. Many times, people only want to prove that they are right, and ignore evidence that they are wrong. That is not how a good investigation works. It is critically important to gather all the facts before making a decision. The first and most important step you can take is a step back, and reflect on what happened. It may be that the insurance company is right, and you are at fault; also, they may be wrong. Keep an open mind.

To give good advice, it is usually helpful to know what you think happened in the crash, generally what the other driver is saying happened, and generally what the independent witnesses, if there are any, are saying happened. A police report, if one was created, will have a lot of this information; 911 audio and call reports can also have a lot of this information. Scene photos—either right after the crash or Google Maps and Google Street view will work—and photos of the property damage to corroborate or contradict some of the crash dynamics can also help. For various reasons, I will almost never have all this information.

If the police investigated, they will not always be able to record everyone’s story in detail. The independent witnesses may have moved, not left contact information, or not want to participate. There may be no independent witnesses. It might come down to a he said-she said scenario. In that instance, an accident reconstructionist might help, but in most cases, we may be able to infer what happened from other circumstantial evidence.

Regardless, at the end of the investigation, when we have gathered all the facts we can, we look to the law. There are certain rules of the road that every driver, bicyclist, and pedestrian are required to follow. I try to find out what I think probably happened, being as objective as possible. Then I look to the traffic laws, also known as the rules of the road. While I am doing that, the overriding question I ask myself is, “What could each person have done differently to avoid this collision?”

Violating a rule of the road can be evidence of negligence, and when a person’s negligence causes or contributes to the crash, that person is at fault. Fault can be assigned to each party involved in the crash as a percentage, 0% through 100%. If multiple rules of the road were violated by multiple parties, fault could be shared.

At the end of all that, we would need to have a conversation about the costs and benefits of moving forward with your case. In other words, we would weigh the risks of an adverse liability finding against the potential upside for damages to be awarded on the case. If both of us were comfortable, we would move into preparing the case for litigation. My experience has been that sharing the results of the investigation with the insurance company without filing a lawsuit is not always the best idea.

Many personal injury attorneys know how hard it can be to seek compensation for injuries. When the prospects of that are hurt by a liability dispute, it can make the case even more difficult. Proving liability is important, but it is not the only element to a successful personal injury case. Feel free to contact our office if you have questions or are interested in a free consultation for your case.

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About the Author

Benjamin P. Melnick

Ben Melnick joined the firm in 2018. He graduated from Washington State University with a Bachelor's degree in 2010, and went on to earn his Juris Doctorate from Gonzaga University School of Law. In 2016, he was named as the Clark County Bar Association's Rising Star. His practice focuses on personal injury, auto accidents, biking accidents, wrongful death, and insurance disputes. Outside work, Ben likes spend time with his wife outdoors—mostly running, hiking, and skiing—and playing soccer.

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