Rear-End Collisions in Icy Conditions—Who Is Liable?

Console and Associates, P.C.
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As winter approaches and temperatures drop, icy conditions are inevitable. When those icy conditions contribute to motor vehicle crashes, as they do several times each year, it can be difficult for motorists to sort out liability.

Rear-end collisions are particularly common. Despite the colloquial term “fender bender,” which is sometimes used to refer to these kinds of accidents, rear-end crashes can cause severe injuries.

In regular road conditions, the rear car—the one that strikes the back of the vehicle in front of it—is typically liable. This is primarily because motorists are required to maintain a safe following distance, or the distance between the front of their vehicle and the back of the vehicle ahead of them. Of course, there are some exceptions, depending on the circumstances of the individual accident.

Similarly, the driver of the rear car is most likely to be the one found liable for a rear-end crash that occurs in icy conditions. Generally, motorists have the responsibility to maintain control of their vehicles at all times while behind the wheel. This includes times when the road conditions are less than ideal.

Motorists’ Responsibilities in Icy Driving Conditions

When a person is driving in icy conditions, they should take steps to ensure that they can maintain control of the car in those conditions.

Generally, those steps might include:

  • Reducing their speed to below the posted speed limit
  • Increasing the following distance between vehicles from the three-second stopping distance recommended under regular road conditions to a five- or six-second stopping distance, as recommended by AAA
  • Accelerating and decelerating more gradually than they would in regular road conditions
  • Taking turns particularly gradually to avoid the vehicle spinning out of control
  • Avoiding using cruise control and being prepared to apply steady pressure to the brakes if needed, so that they can stop or slow down without slamming on the brakes and increasing the risks of a loss of control over the vehicle
  • Knowing when and how to shift gears for better control and traction in snowy or icy conditions

Drivers who don’t take these precautions in the event of foreseeable icy conditions are likely to be found liable when they strike a car from behind.

When Would the Driver of the Rear Car Not Be Liable (Or Not Completely at Fault)?

In some instances, the driver of the lead car may be the one who is liable for a rear-end crash or, more likely, may share some liability for the accident.

Some examples of when the driver of the lead car may bear at least partial liability for the crash include:

  • The lead car reversing into the rear car
  • The lead car cutting off the rear car when turning, changing lanes, or merging into traffic, so that the rear driver had no opportunity to establish a safe following distance between vehicles
  • The lead car lacking functioning brake lights to signal to the rear driver that the motorist intends to stop or slow down

Icy road conditions, in and of themselves, don’t excuse drivers from liability. The rear car sliding on a patch of ice in predictably icy conditions will typically be liable for the crash they cause, since they should have known about and taken precautions for the road conditions.

What to Do If You Were Injured in a Rear-End Collision in Icy Road Conditions

No matter who is at fault for the crash, any injured party should promptly receive medical examination and treatment.

Generally, you don’t have to figure out who is liable for a crash before you are examined by emergency medical personnel, emergency department doctors, or providers at an urgent care facility—especially if your crash happened in a no-fault state like New Jersey or Pennsylvania. Your health is the most important thing.

If You’re at Fault for the Collision

If you fear that you may be the one at fault for the crash, you should know that your auto insurance company is generally required to protect you from the financial consequences of a civil claim arising out of a motor vehicle accident. Your auto insurance policy covers the damages owed to the plaintiff (up to the limits of your policy), and your insurer will appoint a lawyer to represent you at no additional charge to you.

Notify your insurance company of the collision promptly. If you receive any tickets or citations for violations of motor vehicle law, paying these fines or facing other penalties will be your responsibility.

In situations in which you believe you are only partially at fault for the crash, you may still be entitled to compensation. A free consultation with an auto accident attorney can help you understand your legal rights, responsibilities, and options in your unique situation.

If You’re Not at Fault (or Less at Fault) for the Crash

For the victims harmed by the rear driver’s negligence—whether occupants of the lead car or passengers in the rear vehicle—the accident has turned your life upside down. You deserve and are entitled to compensation for the damages you suffered because of the accident. Generally, you would get this compensation by pursuing a personal injury claim with the auto insurance company of the at-fault driver.

Although it’s not required that you hire an attorney for a car accident claim, it’s often wise to do so when your injuries and other damages are significant. Research by the Insurance Research Council has shown that attorneys get their clients 3.5 times more money, on average, than unrepresented claimants. You should know that attorneys usually handle claims like yours on a no-win, no-fee basis, so you will pay nothing upfront to pursue a claim.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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