Legal and financial liability for a car accident often depends on figuring out who hit who. That’s not always an easy task. Multiple factors can contribute to the cause of a car accident, and each can affect how law enforcement, lawyers, insurance companies, judges, and juries, assign fault.
Let’s look at how you can tell who hit who in a car accident.
Sources of Information for Who Hit Whom in a Car Accident
Lawyers, insurance adjusters, and others who spend lots of time investigating the cause of car accidents will draw on a wide cross-section of information about a crash to determine who hit who. Here are some of the most common sources of information they turn to, describing their strengths and shortcomings.
#1. The Police Accident Report
Police who respond to the scene of an accident must prepare a report collecting a wide variety of information about who was involved and what happened. This police accident report, also known as a traffic crash report, often serves as a convenient source of background information about the crash and evidence pointing to who hit who.
The drivers involved in the accident and their lawyers generally have the right to a full copy of the report. The police may also make a version of the report available to the public that leaves out (or redacts) personal information about the victims.
The information included in a police accident report typically includes:
- The time, date, and location of the accident;
- The names, ages, and contact information of the drivers and passengers involved in the accident;
- The registration and insurance information for the vehicles involved in the accident;
- The number and type of vehicles involved;
- The manner of the collision or first harmful event;
- A diagram of the positions of the vehicles before and after the accident;
- Factors that may have contributed to the cause of the accident, such as vehicle speed, driver distraction, or driver impairment;
- Names, contact information, and statements of witnesses to the accident;
- Summaries of any apparent injuries or fatalities suffered in the accident; and
- Photos of the accident scene.
Some crash reports include space for the responding police officer to opine on the cause of the accident, including who hit whom. But this opinion is not necessarily the final word on the subject. The weight given to it by lawyers, insurance companies, and courts will often depend on the officer’s training, experience, and thoroughness in conducting the initial crash investigation.
#2. Accident Victim and Witness Statements
Separate and apart from any statements recorded in the police accident report, professionals investigating who hit who in a crash also conduct their interviews of the drivers, vehicle occupants, and witnesses. Frequently, these interviews delve much deeper into the facts of what happened than the police report, simply because the circumstances allow the interviewers to take more time in asking questions than a police officer can at the crash scene.
Your lawyer may need to obtain statements from multiple witnesses, and two people’s perspectives on the same event can differ dramatically. This is commonly known as the “Rashomon Effect,” named after a Japanese short story and 1950 Akira Kurosawa film in which four witnesses to a crime recount what they saw in four markedly different ways.
Researchers have found that accident victims, in particular, routinely struggle to remember critical aspects of a crash or that they have distorted memories of traumatic moments compared to the statements of neutral eyewitnesses.
For that reason, it’s sometimes only possible to construct a clear picture of what happened in a car accident by hearing numerous witnesses’ viewpoints.
#3. Photos and Videos of the Accident Scene or the Accident Itself
Often, photos and videos of a car accident scene can provide crucial evidence in determining who hit who. However, the degree of certainty they supply frequently depends on when, where, and who took them, and (of course) what they do and do not show.
Crash scene images may depict potentially useful information like:
- The extent and location of damage to the vehicles, which can provide clues about the speed of the vehicles and the nature of the collision;
- The relative position of the vehicles when they came to rest after a collision is also helpful in determining crash speeds and dynamics;
- Tire skid marks and other markings left on the road in the accident may reflect a driver’s attempts to avoid a collision;
- Nearby road features, lighting conditions, and other environmental factors can help to explain how or why a collision occurred.
Sometimes, a camera in a vehicle or near the scene captures the accident. Dashboard cameras, traffic cameras, and even security cameras at nearby homes or businesses might record the moment of a collision. These crash videos can provide helpful information in figuring out who hit who.
But investigators must also contend with the inherent limitations of all images, which are two-dimensional representations of a three-dimensional world. Pixel size, perspective, and lighting can inject uncertainty into what seems like an otherwise clear depiction of what happened.
#4. Forensic Analysis (a.k.a. Accident Reconstruction)
Car accident lawyers and insurance companies sometimes hire forensic experts to help them investigate an accident and to interpret the evidence already collected. Accident reconstruction experts often have specialized training in engineering, materials science, and crash mechanics. They apply scientific methods to uncover potentially hidden factors that led to a collision.
A forensic expert may gather extra evidence by taking measurements of a crash scene or inspecting a damaged vehicle. The expert may also evaluate witness statements, images, and official reports. Often, the expert will write a report for a lawyer or insurance company to use in legal proceedings, stating the expert’s opinion about who hit who. The expert may also testify in court about that opinion.
#5. Medical Records and Testimony From Medical Experts
The injuries inflicted by a car accident may also provide helpful information about who hit who. The nature and extent of an individual’s injuries on their own, or when compared to other victims’ injuries, may reflect the force of a collision or the first harmful event that occurred.
Often, a medical expert or the victim’s treating physician may offer an opinion about what the injuries show. Like a forensic expert, a medical expert may conduct an independent investigation, write a report, and testify under oath if necessary.
#6. Electronic Data From Handheld Devices and Onboard Systems
Data from smartphones, GPS units, and onboard vehicle computers can also provide critical information in deciphering who hit who in a car accident.
Using forensic techniques and specialized software, data investigators may uncover evidence of, for example:
- The precise time of a crash as registered by a device’s internal gyroscope;
- A distracted driver sending a text or programming a GPS moments before a crash;
- The long-term driving behaviors of a driver involved in the crash;
- The speed and travel direction of a vehicle when it crashed; or
- The duration and force of a vehicle braking just before a crash.
Skilled lawyers and investigators understand the growing importance of quickly locating and preserving a crash’s electronic data before it’s deleted or overwritten. As smartphones and other devices become ever-more sophisticated, they can provide volumes of potentially critical information about who hit who.
What Happens in a Dispute Over Who Hit Whom?
If one driver admits liability for the accident, and the relevant insurance companies agree with that assessment, the crash victims can reasonably expect to receive financial compensation for some injuries and losses.
But unfortunately, that kind of smooth sailing is not the norm. In many accident cases, the drivers, their lawyers, and the relevant insurance companies will at least initially disagree about who hit who. When that happens, it triggers a process of investigation and dispute resolution that typically includes the following steps.
#1. Evidence Preservation and Collection
Lawyers, insurance adjusters, and other stakeholders usually move quickly to locate and collect the various categories of evidence discussed above. All parties understand that time is of the essence. The sooner they secure witness, visual, and forensic evidence, the more accurate that information will be, and the more confidence they can have in determining who hit who.
But that doesn’t mean this phase of the process is instantaneous. An investigation of a car accident can take weeks, months, or even more than a year, depending on (among other factors) the complexity of the accident scene, the damage the crash caused, and the number of victims.
Ideally, all parties would cooperate in evidence preservation and collection efforts. But someone who disputes who hit whom may have an incentive to hide evidence or make it difficult to get. Frequently, lawyers must use legal procedures to force parties and other stakeholders to turn over important information.
#2. Review and Analysis
As evidence gets collected, the parties evaluate it to decide what they believe it shows about who hit who. It’s entirely possible, however, for them to reach different conclusions based on the same body of evidence. As they complete important stages of their analysis, they may share it with the opposing party’s lawyers or insurance representatives to convince them that they are right.
#3. Demands and Pleadings
At some point, one or both parties may achieve a sufficient level of certainty in determining who hit who they will make a formal demand that the other party (or parties) pay damages for the harm the accident caused.
A demand may take the form of a letter from a lawyer to an at-fault party’s representatives or an insurance claim against a party’s liability insurance policy, for example. Depending upon the other party’s response to a demand, a party may also prepare and file pleadings, which are documents that formally initiate a lawsuit against a party for car accident damages.
#4. Settlement Negotiation
At any point in the process, one or both parties may initiate settlement discussions to resolve the dispute. A settlement is an agreement to resolve a legal dispute. It usually takes one party agreeing to pay money in exchange for the other party agreeing not to pursue further legal action related to an accident.
Settlement negotiations can take various forms, including phone calls between lawyers, exchanges of letters or emails, and in-person mediation sessions. Parties engage in settlement negotiations because it’s often the most efficient and satisfactory way to bring a dispute to a close. But settlements can also mean that one or both parties must “agree to disagree” over who hit whom to put their differences to rest.
#5. Going to Court
If settlement negotiations cannot achieve an agreed resolution, the parties who disagree about who hit who may present their opposing views in a courtroom trial. A judge or jury hears the evidence, weighs it, and decides who hit who (or, at least, who should pay who for damages the accident caused).
Contact a Lawyer to Determine Who Hit Who in Your Car Accident
Suppose you suffered injuries of any kind in a car accident. In that case, there’s a good chance someone will want to know who hit who before you can obtain financial compensation for your injuries and losses. Contact an experienced car accident lawyer today to get started answering that question.