Bad drivers usually get what's coming to them: tickets, fender-benders, higher car insurance rates.
But what about bad parkers?
The driver who scrapes an inconsiderately or illegally parked car usually curses it, then takes the blame because he was moving and the parked car wasn't.
So it may come as a surprise to you--and even to some police officers--that a poorly parked car can be held liable, either by an auto insurance company or in a court of law.
"Absolutely," says Glenn Greenberg, a spokesman for Liberty Mutual. "Just because the vehicle is parked doesn't absolve it in 100 percent of cases from any liability in the accident."
Situations vary so widely that it's difficult to provide blanket at-fault rules, particularly given the added variability of state and local laws. But to get a general idea of when, or if, the driver of a parked car may have to pony up some responsibility, consider these two scenarios:
- A public parking lot is full, and a large van has pulled to the side of the lot's exit lane to park. A driver leaving the lot - his eyes tuned to cross traffic - scrapes the side of the van as he turns onto the street. Clearly, the van should not have been parked there. So is the van's driver partly to blame for the accident?
- A driver pulls to the side of a rural roadway to make a phone call. The speed limit is 50 mph, and the road lacks a wide shoulder. The car extends slightly into the driving lane just past a curve. Another car comes around the bend and, unable to stop or veer into oncoming traffic, hits the parked car from behind. Should the parked driver pay?
Is this parked car an inconvenience, or a hazard?
George P. Patterson, a lawyer with Sasscer, Clagett & Bucher in Maryland, has fielded his share of calls from drivers who believe they've been wronged by bad parkers.
One simple way to assess blame, he says, is to ask, "Was this parking violation creating an inconvenience or a safety hazard?"
If it's the former, as with the van in the parking lot, the driver certainly may be cited for illegal parking, but likely won't be held accountable for the accident. It is the responsibility of other drivers to make their way around the car, no matter how annoyed or distracted they may be.
"When you're driving your car and you can see it, it's really on you to avoid it," says Patterson.
The car parked along the bending highway, though, is clearly violating a no-parking rule that exists for safety reasons. In that situation, the parked driver's car insurance company may end up paying all or part of the damages.
Patterson currently represents a client involved in just such a case. His client was rounding a bend in the left lane of the Washington Beltway, a divided highway, and hit a tow truck parked partially in the lane of travel. His client was unable to swerve due to traffic in the neighboring lane.
"That's a situation where you have clear negligence on the part of the tow truck, and a situation where the driver couldn't have done anything," Patterson says.
Drivers have a duty to move their cars off the road to the best of their ability, particularly where other drivers would not expect to encounter a parked vehicle.
There's always an exception
Of course, in between the aforementioned scenarios lie many shades of gray.
What if a driver turns a corner in a residential neighborhood and strikes a construction worker's trailer? Is the trailer's owner to blame for parking at the corner and not putting up warning cones?
"It's always going to be very fact-specific," says Patterson.
It's also always worth a call to an auto insurance specialist, says Greenberg.
"If the facts reveal that the owner (of the parked car) did not exercise reasonable care and give drivers the ability to avoid it, we might consider pursuing some level of liability," Greenberg says.
And here's another scenario that should haunt any illegal, inconsiderate or other types of bad parkers: Say you've parked your SUV on a city block lined with parked cars, but pulled into an illegal spot that blocks the visibility of the car behind yours. That car then pulls out and into oncoming traffic, causing a crash.
Your car was parked, and it wasn't even hit. But you're not necessarily off the hook.
The person "can certainly collect from the person who pulled out in front of them, but they might also be able to collect from the driver of the parked car," Greenberg says.
How to file a parking-lot car insurance claim
Most car insurance companies won't require a police report for a minor parking lot accident, says CarInsurance.com consumer analyst Penny Gusner. She suggests calling anyway. "Many times the police will tell you to exchange information on your own. But you can tell the insurance company that you did call, but that the police didn't respond."
And if the cops do show up, you've got a police report that lays out the facts.
If police don't respond, Gusner says you should exchange names, contact information, license numbers and insurance companies and policy numbers. If there are witnesses, get their names and phone numbers as well. Take pictures, she says, even if you believe you were at fault. You don't want to be asked to repair damage you didn't cause.
If you hit an unoccupied car, most states require that you find the owner or leave a note so that he or she can contact you. Tell your own insurance company exactly what happened. Your car insurance liability coverage--the coverage you're required to buy--will pay for the other driver's car if you're determined to be at fault.
If another car hits yours but the driver fails to leave a note, your own collision coverage (assuming you carry it) would pay any auto insurance claims.
If another car hits yours and the other driver is at fault, his property damage liability coverage would repair your car.
If the facts are in dispute, exchange information and tell your own insurer your side rather than hashing it out in a parking lot. Let the adjusters settle it.