Image: Insurance adjuster assessing damage to car © Corbis

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% 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 toassume 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 attention focused on 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 because of 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.

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