Sorry seems to be the hardest word

People often have a hard time admitting when they are wrong

Personal Injury claims for an accident that wasn't your fault, why do we think that an accident is not fault?

Even when they have insurance to pay for their mistakes, people often have a hard time admitting when they are wrong. Why are so many personal injury claims won only after defendants have initially fought them?

According to data supplied by the Ministry of Justice, in around 25% of personal injury claims for lower value road traffic accidents and 55% of claims for other types of lower value accidents the defendant starts out by disputing that they were legally to blame for what has happened.

Despite this, Hunt and Coombs’ personal injury team have a success rate of around 95%. This isn’t just because we are good at what we do, there can be a reluctance for either defendants or their insurers to admit liability in cases where it turns out they should have.

Why is this?

Imagine you are driving your car with no intention of causing anyone any harm, you haven’t been drinking, you have a licence and insurance and your car is in decent condition.

Driving onto a motorway you find yourself behind a slow moving lorry so you look in your mirrors and wait for a gap to overtake. You see a gap and start to overtake. As you are looking in front to navigate your way around the lorry there’s suddenly a loud bang and a lurch and you’ve been hit from behind by another car that you hadn’t seen.

What happened there? You and the other car pull over and the other younger maybe newly qualified driver gets out, ranting and raving, calling you every name under the sun. Why is the blame being put on you? You checked your mirrors saw the gap, it must have been the other driver speeding or doing something wrong otherwise it wouldn’t have happened.

After all, you don’t do this sort of thing.

Psychologists call this ‘cognitive dissonance’, stress when we hold two opposing thoughts at once.  People don’t generally think of themselves as the bad guy, so when they make a mistake or cause someone else some harm – when they actually are the bad guy – they have a natural instinct to deny their mistake, often by trying to shift the blame onto someone else.

Sometimes the psychological stresses on those involved in accidents can be immense. Although most injuries suffered in accidents are fortunately not life threatening, sometimes victims can be killed or horribly injured.

Recently the BBC published the story of Maryann Gray, who in 1977 accidentally killed an eight year old boy who ran out in front of her car. Whilst she was not to blame for the collision, her story gives a vivid idea of what it can be like knowing that despite being a good person, she has killed someone.  She describes shock, guilt and psychological problems that have affected her for the rest of her life.

Being the victim of an accident can be life changing, but being the perpetrator of an accident in which someone is injured can be hard too. Compensation claims are often presented as being all about the money, with the injured victim getting a financial windfall and the defendant, whilst a bit annoyed at losing their no claims bonus, not caring that much because their insurance will sort it all out.

The reality is different, and rather more emotional. I have never met anyone who has been the victim of an accident who is pleased to have received their injuries. Likewise, for a defendant who has caused an accident, knowing they have insurance to protect them from the financial cost of a claim is often not the point; they don’t want to feel they have hurt someone, and have a natural instinct not to want to accept the blame.

When an accident happens or when a claim is made, the defendant reports the matter to their insurance company. Insurance claim forms ask who the defendant thinks was to blame, and if they say they weren’t at fault the insurers are likely to go with that.

Even if the defendant thinks they were to blame, that isn’t the end of the story. Insurance companies step in to defend cases on behalf of defendants using “subrogation rights”, allowing them to act as if they were the defendant themselves. Insurers are not allowed to lie when they defend cases, so for example if the defendant tells them that he was driving the car they can’t deny that fact. However, even if the defendant thinks they were to blame the insurer is entitled to disagree with them, and to deny liability on their behalf.

For the insurers, whether to accept a claim is much more of a purely financial question. Whilst the claims handler is a human and so won’t be entirely insensitive to the fact that there is an injured person at the centre of it all, an insurance company ultimately owes a duty only to its shareholders to make money for them. Insurers don’t just look at whether, in their opinion, the defendant injured the claimant by breaking the law, they will be considering other questions, such as:

  • Can the claim be proved?
  • If we deny liability, will the claimant give up and not take things any further?
  • If we deny liability, will the claimant agree to accept a lower amount of money so that they at least get something out of the case?
  • Do the claimant’s solicitors have a reputation for dropping cases where liability is disputed?

At Hunt and Coombs we regularly handle cases in which liability is disputed by defendants. We are used to difficult cases, and how to navigate through defendants’ denials, understanding what are good and bad arguments. Just because liability is denied, it does not mean a claim will not succeed.

For the defendant, if you are unfortunate enough to cause an accident, it does not mean you have done it deliberately. People make mistakes all the time, and in all but a handful of cases nobody gets hurt and nobody loses anything. For those struggling to come to terms with causing a serious accident, counselling and other psychological treatment can often help, even a long time after the event. You can see your GP to ask about what help may be available. Maryann Gray has set up a website, Accidental Impacts, providing support for those who cause serious accidents.

For further information and legal advice concerning compensation for a potential personal injury claim please contact our Personal Injury team on 01733 882800 or email

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This article has been prepared for general interest and information purposes only; it does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied on as such. While all possible care has been taken in the preparation of this article, no responsibility for the accuracy and/or correctness of the information and commentary set out in the article, or for any consequences of relying on it, is assumed or accepted by the firm or the authors.