The Challenges of Chain Reaction Collisions

In our practice as personal injury attorneys, we regularly handle cases in which clients are entitled to recover damages after being struck from behind by another vehicle while lawfully stopped in the roadway. But what if you are hit from the rear, perhaps feeling multiple impacts, with two or more cars piled up behind from a “chain reaction” collision? How does the injured plaintiff determine which driver (or drivers) was negligent, and is therefore responsible for her injuries?

Causes of Chain Reaction Collisions

Chain reaction collisions can unfold in several different ways. An inattentive driver may fail to see a line of cars stopped in the roadway at a traffic signal and strike the rear vehicle with enough force to create an accordion effect, pushing each car into the one in front of it. Unfortunately, this kind of impact can occur when the negligent driver is texting, using a smartphone, or is otherwise distracted, preventing her from seeing and reacting to the stopped vehicles ahead.

It is also common to see chain reaction collisions in heavy, stop-and-go traffic. One driver may speed up quickly, only to brake hard suddenly when traffic ahead stops again. In these situations, multiple drivers may independently strike the cars in front of them, with each bearing at least partial fault for the pileup.

The Question of Fault

In Virginia, an injured driver may recover for her injuries against the negligent driver, so long as the injured driver herself was not guilty of “contributory negligence,” or shared fault, for the accident. Therefore, if a driver negligently strikes the car in front of her, only to be rear-ended a moment later by another vehicle, it is generally difficult for that driver to make a successful recovery based on her own contributory negligence.

By contrast, if the injured driver was operating her car safely when she was struck from behind, she will have a claim for her injuries. But determining which car in the chain of vehicles behind her was actually at fault can be challenging. Which drivers were following too close or inattentive to the road, and which drivers were merely pushed into the plaintiff’s car after being hit from behind?

Investigating Liability

Our attorneys and team of in-house investigators regularly investigate the circumstances of just these kinds of chain reaction collisions. This includes obtaining copies of investigative materials from federal, state and local law enforcement, conducting interviews with officers and witnesses, and reviewing physical evidence including damage to the vehicles and roadway.

In some instances, there is evidence that more than one driver involved in the collision was negligent by striking the vehicle in front of it, allowing the injured plaintiff to pursue a claim against all at-fault drivers at the same time. This can be helpful where one of the drivers carries little or no insurance but the other driver is well-insured, because of the Virginia’s rule of “joint and several liability”: if two defendants share responsibility for causing the collision, each defendant is liable for the full measure of the plaintiff’s damages. A related law in Virginia provides that if separate acts of negligence by two parties each cause a single injury to the plaintiff, then both defendants are liable to the plaintiff for that injury.

What To Do

There are some steps you can take to reduce the risk of being involved in a chain reaction collision. First, be sure that your brake lights are functioning properly. When stopping behind traffic in front of you, always leave sufficient space between your car and the car ahead, to reduce the risk of being pushed into the front vehicle if you are struck from behind.  Additionally, when caught in stop-and-go traffic, take care not to accelerate too quickly, which can make it more difficult to stop safely when traffic slows again.

If you do have the misfortune of being involved in a chain reaction collision, keep in mind the following tips. First, if anyone has been injured, call 911 so that the necessary emergency medical treatment can be rendered, and if you are hurt seek medical attention promptly. Be sure to collect the name and insurance information for all drivers involved in the accident, as well as contact information for any witnesses. I also recommend that you not speak to the insurance company before contacting an attorney for advice regarding your rights.