Parking Lot Collisions: Whose Fault Is It?

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This article has been updated from a previous version.

Parking lots are, at the best of times, a trial for the patience and navigational skills of every driver.

Vehicles are coming in and out, the person in the vehicle in front of you is waiting for another driver to back up so he can poach the spot, plus shoppers with carts and pedestrians are all potential hazards to avoid.

And that’s at the best of times. We’re approaching the worst of time for driving through a public parking lot: the holiday season. Before you know it, the malls will be packed with shoppers while impatient drivers navigate their way around mountains of plowed snow searching for that elusive parking spot closest to the mall entrance.

It’s estimated that one in five traffic collisions in Canada takes place in parking lots. Fortunately, due to low speed, injuries tend to be minimal, and it’s easier to avoid them in the first place. But collisions still happen. And if one happens to you, it can affect your car insurance rate.

Many people believe that because they happen on private property, or because it’s easier for insurance companies to process, parking lot collisions are a 50-50 split in terms of fault. Those people are wrong. The same fault determination rules apply to collisions in a parking lot as they do to collisions on a roadway, including the penalties for moving violations accrued.

Just as there are rules of the road, there are rules of the parking lot. What your responsibilities are as a driver depends on what kind of lane you are in, such as:

  • Thoroughfares are lanes that lead to an exit or roadway. Drivers in thoroughfares tend to be moving faster, and thus have the right-of-way over other vehicles.
  • Feeder lanes are lanes between rows of parked cars that lead to thoroughfares. Drivers in these lanes must yield to thoroughfare traffic.
  • Cars exiting parking lanes must yield to traffic in feeder lanes.

Common parking lot collisions

Let’s look at some typical parking lot collision scenarios, and consider how fault would be assessed:

  • A moving driver hits a legally parked car. This is the most common parking lot collision. It includes dinging your neighbour’s car while opening your door and similar mishaps. The moving driver will be judged to be at fault.
  • Two cars collide while pulling out of their parking spots. This is often a 50-50 fault split. The exception would be if one car had the last opportunity to avoid a collision.
  • Two vehicles collide while vying for a parking space. Many factors are at play here: Who had the right-of-way? Who was farthest into the parking spot? And who had the last clear chance to avoid the collision?
  • A car hits a moving vehicle while pulling out of a spot. Right-of-way applies; the driver pulling out is at fault.

How to avoid a parking lot collision

There are many ways to avoid a collision in a parking lot. Some are obvious: pay attention, know the right-of-way rules, and don’t get distracted scanning for a parking spot.

Some aren’t so obvious, like timing your visit for low-traffic times, backing into your spot so you don’t have to reverse while exiting, and not getting sandwiched between two larger vehicles that can block your view.

What if, despite your best efforts, you collide with another vehicle in a parking lot? In this circumstance, what not to do is as important as what to do.

On one hand, tempers could easily flare. Don’t let yours. Recrimination doesn’t help. On the other hand, do not apologize. Saying, “I’m sorry” can be construed as an admission of fault.

Don’t just pull away and leave the scene, either. There are severe penalties for leaving the scene of a collision that could even include jail time. Wait for the other driver to return to his or her vehicle if necessary. If you absolutely can’t remain, leave a note with your driver’s licence number, your plate number, your contact and insurance information so the other driver can follow up. Take photos of the damage to both cars.

Though parking lot collisions tend to happen at low velocity, the first order of business is to make sure no one’s been physically injured. If anyone is seriously injured, call 911.

If someone has been injured, or if damage to both vehicles is more than a certain amount (greater than $2,000 in Ontario, Alberta, and Nova Scotia), you must file a police report. Your policy may stipulate that you must notify your insurance provider about all collisions, even if an arrangement is made to settle the damages out-of-pocket (which you should not do).

If you can move the vehicles, get them out of the way. Take pictures of the damage and exchange insurance information.

If you are the victim of a parking lot hit-and-run, call the police, then notify your broker. You may be covered by collision coverage (if you have it) or under the uninsured driver provisions in your policy.

How does a parking lot collision affect car insurance?

Any collision can impact your insurance rates. If you’re found to be at fault, your premium may rise, unless you have an accident forgiveness clause. If you don’t have collision coverage and are found at fault, you may have to pay out-of-pocket for any vehicle or property damage.

Whether you’ve been in a collision or not, it’s always in your best interest to review your policy and premium regularly so that you’re not overpaying. Do a quick search online for the lowest auto insurance premium you can find. In a few clicks, you might find out you can save a bundle.

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