Auto Accidents and California’s Comparative Negligence Laws
At first glance, many auto accident cases seem rather straightforward. In the prototypical case, a defendant-driver negligently operated his or her vehicle, causing an accident with the plaintiff-victim. If the defendant’s negligence substantially contributed to the plaintiff’s injuries, then the plaintiff may recover damages from the at-fault defendant.
In reality, however, there are often additional layers of complexity. A single defendant may not be exclusively at fault for the accident; there may be multiple defendants who are at fault, to varying degrees. The court may even find that the plaintiff is partially at fault.
These issues are handled rather elegantly in California. Under California law, auto accident claims, like other personal injury claims, are governed by what is known as the pure comparative fault rule, which assigns proportional fault to each party.
Let’s explore the fundamentals.
The Pure Comparative Fault Rule
California applies a pure comparative fault rule (otherwise known as pure comparative negligence). Defendants are only liable for their actual fault, as represented by a percentage of the total fault in the auto accident. Plaintiffs who are found to be partially at-fault can still recover damages, but will have their recovery reduced accordingly.
Suppose that you are the victim in an auto accident case. The defendant was speeding, and slammed into the side of your vehicle as you were turning onto a local road. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that the total damages are equivalent to $10,000.
Under the pure comparative fault rule, the court will determine the relative fault of each party involved in the accident. In the present example, the court may find that the fault for the auto accident is 80% attributable to the defendant-driver, and 20% attributable to you, the plaintiff-victim. Perhaps the court finds that, despite the fact that the defendant was negligently speeding on a local road, you should have recognized that the defendant’s vehicle was speeding and waited to turn. Perhaps the court also finds that you were driving fatigued, and that you would have recognized the threat of the speeding vehicle had you rested appropriately before driving.
Though you are partially at-fault for the accident, you may still recover for your damages. Importantly, however, you may only recover 80% of the total damages, or $8,000 – the amount equivalent to the defendant’s actual, attributable fault. In summary, as a plaintiff, your damages are reduced (but not eliminated) by your own proportional fault.
The percentage fault determination is highly fact-specific, and a skilled, persuasive argument can help sway the fact-finder. An experienced auto accident attorney will help ensure that you maximize recovery under the pure comparative fault rule.
The Presence of Multiple Defendants
Just as the pure comparative fault rule assigns proportional liability to the defendant and the plaintiff, the rule also assigns liability between multiple at-fault defendants.
Suppose that you are the victim in an auto accident case. The defendant-driver (defendant A) rear ends you while you are stopped at a red traffic light. Your car rolls into incoming traffic, and you’re hit by a speeding vehicle driving in the opposite direction (defendant B).
There are two defendants here – defendant A and defendant B – and they may both be liable for your injuries to some degree. Though defendant A rear-ended your vehicle, thus initiating the accident, defendant B was speeding and therefore could not stop his vehicle in time to prevent the second collision. The court will assign the fault proportionally between the two defendants, and as the plaintiff, you may sue one or both parties for their share of the total damages.
Joint and Several Liability
Under California law, if multiple defendants are involved in your auto accident case, you may recover all your economic damages from one defendant, even if that defendant is not responsible for all such damages. This is known as joint and several liability. It is the defendant’s responsibility to sue the other liable defendants for contribution, not yours.
Unfortunately, Proposition 51 (Civil Code section 1431.2) has eliminated joint and several liability for non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, which often comprises a significant portion of the total damages award. You must sue each at-fault defendant separately to recover your full non-economic damages award.
If you have been injured in an auto accident, you should consult with an experienced attorney who will help analyze your claim, and will guide you through the process.