Who Is Liable: The Car Owner or the Driver?

August 16, 2023 | Ed Bernstein
Who Is Liable: The Car Owner or the Driver?

You can usually hold a driver who causes a car accident liable. You might also hold the car owner accountable for the damages and injuries in certain circumstances.

Legal responsibility, or liability, determines who bears the financial consequences of the accident. Your car accident lawyer, equipped with legal knowledge and experience, can establish the liability of the driver and car owner by gathering evidence, witness statements, and police reports.

What Is Liability After a Car Accident?

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Negligence implies a failure to act with the level of care that a reasonable person would have exercised under similar circumstances and establishes liability in car accidents. Where a driver's negligence causes an accident, they are usually liable. Issues arise when the negligent driver is not the car owner.

When Can You Hold a Car Owner Liable?

A car owner is liable for someone else's actions in some instances, for example, if they allow an inexperienced, reckless, or impaired person to drive their car. Negligent entrustment is when a vehicle owner irresponsibly lends their car to someone unfit to drive, resulting in an accident.

Vicarious liability is a legal principle where an individual or entity is responsible for the actions or damages caused by another person, in this case, the driver. 

The owner is liable if the injured party can show the elements of negligence:

  • The car owner had a duty of care to protect others from harm, including ensuring that anyone driving the car was sober, licensed, and had no history of dangerous driving habits.
  • The car owner breached their duty of care by negligently entrusting their vehicle to someone unsafe to drive.
  • The breach of duty caused the accident that resulted in injuries.

When Is a Car Driver Liable?

You can hold a car driver liable for:

  • Rear-end collisions: In most cases, the driver who rear-ends another vehicle is considered liable for the accident. This is because drivers are expected to maintain a safe following distance and be able to stop in time to avoid a collision if the vehicle in front suddenly brakes.
  • Failure to obey traffic signals: If a driver runs a red light, ignores a stop sign, or disregards any other traffic signal, they are likely to be found liable for any resulting accidents. 
  • Speeding: Driving above the speed limit or too fast for road conditions can lead to accidents. If a driver's excessive speed is found to be a contributing factor to the collision, they may be deemed liable.
  • Distracted driving: When a phone, food, adjusting the radio, or engaging in any activity that diverts their attention from the road distracts a driver, you can hold them liable for an accident.
  • Driving under the influence (DUI): If a driver is operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or any impairing substance and causes an accident, they are likely to be held fully responsible for the collision.
  • Failure to yield right of way: Accidents often occur when a driver fails to yield the right of way at intersections, pedestrian crossings, or when merging into traffic. The driver who failed to yield may be assigned liability.
  • Unsafe lane changes: When a driver changes lanes without signaling properly or without checking blind spots, resulting in an accident, you could hold them liable.

Navigating the liability maze can be challenging, especially when the lines between driver and owner liability blur. In some circumstances, both parties may hold some degree of responsibility. Differentiating between the two requires in-depth legal knowledge and a keen understanding of your case's specifics.

How a Lawyer Can Identify the Responsible Parties

Your lawyer can identify the accountable party by scrutinizing the facts, analyzing the rules applicable to your case, and understanding the relationship between the driver and the owner. Once they determine liability, they can determine the consequences that come with it, including the financial burden of damages and injuries and the potential compensation for your pain and suffering

Injuries from an accident are expensive. According to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, fixing a broken leg—an injury commonly sustained in motor vehicle accidents—can cost around $7,500. A three-day hospital stay can cost around $30,000. Any injury will incur expenses, including X-rays and other diagnostic imaging, doctor's fees, surgical services, and prescription medications. 

Further financial distress can result from lost earnings. If your injuries prevent you from working, you may be entitled to receive compensation for the income you lost during your recovery period. Likewise, if your injuries result in long-term or permanent disabilities that affect your ability to earn a living in the future, you may be eligible for compensation for the loss of earning capacity.

Other costs include property damage—you may be entitled to compensation for the repairs or replacement of your vehicle and any other damaged property, such as personal belongings that were in the car during the accident—and hiring someone to care for you or perform household tasks while you recover.

A car accident can even have far-reaching consequences beyond your immediate physical injuries. You might experience emotional distress and mental trauma, need to attend frequent medical appointments, or lose the ability to participate in enjoyable hobbies. 

In most states, you can receive compensation for your injuries, property damage, and emotional and psychological torment, commonly known as pain and suffering. 

The specific amount of compensation you may receive will be influenced by the evidence presented, the extent of liability, and the negotiation skills of your legal representation if you choose to involve a lawyer. A qualified personal injury attorney will assess your case, gather evidence, and help you understand your rights and get the compensation you deserve.

How Your Lawyer Works to Ensure Fair Compensation

When it comes to compensation, your lawyer is indispensable. They meticulously document all aspects of your pain and suffering, advise you on gathering documentation, and present a case that accurately depicts your experience.

After establishing liability and understanding the consequences, the next step is to embark on the claims process, which often involves negotiations with insurance companies, court visits, and possible arbitration or mediation. The process can be daunting if you are unfamiliar with legal proceedings.

The claims process begins with filing an insurance claim and notifying the at-fault party. An investigation usually follows to analyze and collect evidence. After a thorough examination, the insurance company will either approve or deny your claim. In case of a dispute, your lawyer may proceed to court.

Guidance Throughout the Process

A lawyer is your advocate, providing legal experience, guidance, and representation, protecting your rights throughout your ordeal. While a lawyer cannot make the important decisions for your case, as those decisions are entirely yours, they can provide information to help you determine whether a settlement offer is reasonable or if it is time to pursue the claim in court.

Handling the Legwork Involved in Your Claim

Your lawyer will gather evidence and file legal documents, allowing you to focus on your recovery. Their negotiation skills can secure a fair settlement, saving you from potential financial hardship.


When an insurance provider receives a claim and evaluates it, they look for the answers to three main questions:

  • Does the policy cover the claimant's losses? There are many exclusions in auto-liability insurance policies, such as excluding a high-risk driver and intentional acts committed by the driver, and the insurance company can refuse coverage if the owner fails to pay their premium.
  • Was the insured liable for the accident? Claims adjusters will examine accident reports and interview witnesses and the parties involved to determine whether to accept the insured's liability and pay the claim.
  • How much money should you receive? Once a claims adjuster has determined that the insured party is liable, they will evaluate the claim, often reducing its value to pay out less.

While insurance claims adjusters can choose to accept or deny claims, most car accident claims resolve through a negotiated settlement. The insurance company's first settlement offer is commonly significantly lower than the claim value.

When you hire a car accident lawyer, they provide crucial information to the insurer to help them understand the reason for the compensation amount. The goal is to persuade the insurer to increase their initial offer. 


The statute of limitations determines how much time you have after the accident to file a lawsuit. Missing this deadline can forfeit your rights to legal recourse, as courts almost always decline to hear cases with an expired statute of limitations, and insurers are no longer legally obligated to resolve the claim.

The Risks of Handling Your Case Independently

Many people do not hire an experienced car accident attorney because they don't think they can afford the fees. Most personal injury lawyers, however, work on a contingent fee basis to make their services accessible to everyone, regardless of their financial status. 

The contingent fee means that payment for your lawyer's services is contingent on a successful outcome for your claim. If your lawyer cannot negotiate a settlement, you don't have to pay for their services. If you receive compensation for your claim, your lawyer will receive a percentage of the overall award.

Attempting to handle a case yourself may seem enticing initially, but legal proceedings are intricate, and a single misstep can cost you dearly. A lack of legal knowledge can lead to pitfalls, and you may find yourself at a disadvantage when dealing with insurance companies. Trusting a lawyer to handle your case mitigates these risks and eases the stressful aftermath of a car accident.

Here are some common legal terms used in car accident claims to help you understand your case. 


Liability refers to the legal responsibility a driver has to reimburse those injured in an accident for the financial and psychological harm incurred. Auto insurance policies provide liability coverage, including compensation for injuries and damage to vehicles due to the negligent operation of your vehicle and coverage for legal expenses.


Negligence refers to the failure to take reasonable action to avoid causing harm to others. Examples of negligence that lead to car accidents include driving while drowsy or impaired by alcohol or drugs, failing to yield the right-of-way, driving too fast, failing to maintain your vehicle to ensure it is safe to drive, or allowing an unsafe or unlicensed driver to operate your car.


Damages refer to compensation for physical or psychological harm. Economic damages involve compensation for medical treatment, lost earnings, and property damage. Non-economic damages compensate you for the psychological impact of the accident, such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of the enjoyment of life, and inconvenience.

Statute of Limitations

A statute of limitations is a legal time limit within which a person must file a lawsuit or take legal action regarding a particular event, such as a car accident. Once the statute of limitations expires, the injured party may lose the right to seek compensation through the court system. 

The specific statute of limitations for car accidents can vary by jurisdiction, so it's crucial to know the time frame applicable in your region.

In most places, the statute of limitations for car accidents typically ranges from one to six years from the date of the accident, depending on the state or country's laws.


Discovery is a pre-trial phase in which each party has access to the evidence the other party holds, including witness testimony, video surveillance footage, and black box information from the vehicles.

Medical Lien

A person who doesn't have health insurance or medical coverage through their auto insurance policy faces difficulties obtaining treatment for their injuries. Many healthcare and insurance providers will provide care and wait for payment until you receive compensation. They ensure their right to payment by placing a medical lien on the award. When you receive compensation for your claim, your lawyer will settle these liens.

Contact a Lawyer to Determine Liability and Get the Justice You Deserve

If you've been involved in a car accident, contact an attorney as the critical first step to ensure your rights are protected and liability is accurately determined. Car accidents can be overwhelming and confusing, with multiple factors contributing to the collision. An experienced personal injury attorney is your ally in navigating the complexities of the legal process and advocating for your best interests.

Insurance companies want to settle claims quickly and for as little compensation as possible. An attorney's involvement will level the playing field, as they will handle negotiations with the insurance company on your behalf, ensuring you are not taken advantage of or pressured into accepting an inadequate settlement.

Moreover, a lawyer can help you understand your rights and legal options, guiding you through the process step by step. They understand the applicable laws and can meet crucial deadlines for filing claims, avoiding any potential issues with missed opportunities to seek compensation.

Determining liability in a car accident is a pivotal aspect of securing the compensation you deserve. Reach out to a reputable personal injury law firm who can protect your rights, fight for your interests, and receive the justice you deserve after a car accident.

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Ed Bernstein

Edward M. Bernstein, Esq. is the owner and founding partner of Edward M. Bernstein & Associates, and one of the most recognizable figures in Nevada. Ed is one of state’s premier personal injury attorneys and has hosted The Ed Bernstein Show for over 31 years. He has served the Las Vegas community for decades with dozens of community appointments and terms of service. In the year 2000, he was Nevada’s Democratic nominee for the United States Senate.

Ed received his B.A. from Long Island University in 1971 and his J.D. from Widener University in 1975. Since then, Ed’s professional accolades include numerous publications, honors and awards, court appointments, and has been named one of America’s Top 100 High Stakes Litigators.