Who is at Fault for a Rear-End Accident in California?

It is not always apparent who is at fault for a rear-end accident in California. Rear-end collisions may be especially tricky because the leading car may make a sudden swerve or lane change forcing the trailing vehicle to hit the back bumper. However, because of a comparative negligence rule, California lets both parties pursue compensation regardless of who is at fault.

The Law Offices of Mickey Fine has helped accident victims throughout Bakersfield since 1989. With more than 30 years of experience, our skilled car accident lawyer will help determine the value of your claim and if and how much you were at fault in the crash. 

The Rear Driver is Usually at Fault – But Not Always 

The trailing or rear driver is typically legally responsible for the damage in a rear-end accident, but there are exceptions. If the leading driver was negligent, such as driving under the influence or “brake checking” the vehicle behind them (a dangerous form of road rage), they are more responsible for the crash than the driver behind them. Contributory and comparative negligence laws may change who is primarily at fault for the accident, reducing or eliminating the recoverable damages for the lead driver. 

In California, injured parties can pursue compensation from any at-fault party involved in the rear-end accident. That compensation is reduced by the percentage the driver is legally responsible for the crash and the circumstances leading up to it. For example, an unsafe lane change may cause the trailing driver to hit the car suddenly in front of their vehicle, but witness testimony and the police report say the trailing driver was speeding or distracted. That changes the balance of liability to 10% for the rear driver and 90% for the lead driver. This situation would reduce a settlement of $20,000 to $18,000 for the rear driver.

In light of California’s shared fault laws, it is particularly important to speak with an attorney who can begin working on your case as quickly as possible. You only have two years in which to file a personal injury claim (see California Code of Civil Procedure section 335.1.) so the sooner you act after a wreck, the better your chances of achieving justice.

Why the Driver in Front May Be At Fault for a Rear-End Accident

Rear-end collisions occur every day under a myriad of circumstances. Road conditions, weather, traffic flow, driver negligence, and other factors can play a part in determining who may be found at fault for a rear-end accident.

Sudden Turn In Front of Another Vehicle 

Drivers are supposed to stay alert to changing traffic and road conditions but reacting in a split second is challenging. Some rear-end car accidents occur when a car suddenly turns or switches lanes in front of another vehicle, and they may “cut off” the trailing driver, making it impossible to prevent a crash. 

Dangerous Merge Into Traffic 

Rear-end accidents may happen when a vehicle merges onto a busy highway or interstate or when two lanes merge into one. The leading driver may be speeding or not paying attention to the car in the other lane and may merge directly in front of them, causing an inevitable collision.  

Intoxication or Distracted Driving 

People continue to drive under the influence of drugs and alcohol throughout California, and accidents involving intoxication may be deadly. Driving distractions encompass anything that takes your attention away from the road, be it visual, cognitive, or manual. The police report and witness testimony may find the lead driver was under the influence or obviously distracted when they swerved, merged, or otherwise caused the rear driver to hit their vehicle. 

Driver Backs Into Another Vehicle 

These rear-end accidents are more likely to happen in parking lots. Someone backing out of a tight parking space may not see or fail to look for other vehicles passing behind them and reverse right into another car. 

Defective Vehicle or Vehicle Parts 

The lead driver may not know that their brake lights or other vehicle parts are defective. Brake lights and turn signals alert trailing drivers of a quick change in speed to accommodate a turn or a slow in traffic. Liability in these rear-end accidents may be directed at the vehicle’s manufacturer. 

Common Causes of Rear-End Accidents

When determining who is at fault for a rear-end accident, it is important to investigate all of the factors that may have contributed to the wreck. Whether due to negligence on the part of the lead driver or the following driver, rear-end accidents happen for a multitude of reasons. Some of the most common causes of rear-end collisions include:


Speeding and weaving through traffic can easily lead to rear-end accidents, especially on busy California roadways. The speeding vehicle is breaking traffic laws and driving recklessly, making it difficult for other drivers on the road to prevent a crash with driving maneuvers. When a speeding driver cuts off the driver behind them, and the traffic suddenly slows, there’s no time to stop. 

Following Too Closely 

Tailgating or following a vehicle too closely leads to car crashes every day. Whether the rear driver is in a hurry to get somewhere or angry at the speed of the lead driver, tailgating commonly causes rear-end accidents in which the rear driver is at fault. The trailing driver can’t see the red light or stop sign ahead and hasn’t provided enough space to react to changes in speed when tailgating. 

Distracted Driving 

In the time it takes to read a text message, a driver can travel the length of a football field wholly unaware of their surroundings. Driving distractions also apply to reaching for items on the car floor, changing the navigation system in the vehicle, and eating while driving. Distracted driving causes a host of car accidents, including rear-end crashes. 

Defective Vehicle or Vehicle Parts 

Just as broken or defective brake lights in the leading vehicle can cause a rear-end collision, bad brakes may cause a trailing driver to collide with the car in front of them. The manufacturer may be legally responsible when a defective vehicle part is involved in a rear-end accident. 

Discuss Your Case for Free with a Bakersfield Car Accident Lawyer 

If you’ve been injured in a rear-end car wreck, contact our Bakersfield car accident lawyer today for a FREE case evaluation.

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Call the Law Offices of Mickey Fine at (661) 333-3333. We handle accident claims on a contingency basis, meaning you pay nothing unless we win.

Car Accident
by Mickey Fine Law
Last updated on - Originally published on