States differ in their approach to car accident fault. Some states are at-fault states, while others are no-fault states. In an at-fault state, the person who caused the car accident must pay the other party for their losses – either with an insurance claim or out of pocket. In no-fault states, both drivers' insurance will pay for their medical expenses, regardless of who caused the collision, but the at-fault driver will be required to compensate the other driver for their property damage.
California is neither an at-fault state nor a no-fault state. In California, vehicle owners share fault when a car accident happens. This means that both sides are legally obligated to pay for the injuries and damages of the other driver and their passengers.
How is Shared Fault Determined in California?
California has what is colloquially called a “shared fault” law, but officially it is called the comparative fault law or comparative negligence. Under this law, a person injured in an accident can still claim damages even if they are partially at fault for the accident.
So, if you are 30% at fault for causing an accident, you will only have to pay 30% of the damages from the accident. This holds true even if you are 99% at fault for the accident. Other states employ a modified comparative fault law, which bars plaintiffs from recovering damages if they are 50% or more at fault for the accident.
If a personal injury case goes to trial, responsibility is usually decided by a judge or jury. The court asks the jury to determine what percentage of the plaintiff's negligence contributed to their injuries. To succeed, the defendant must show that the plaintiff was both negligent and that their negligence was a substantial factor in causing their harm. If they find the plaintiff partially responsible, the plaintiff's reward will be reduced by the percentage of their fault. So, if a plaintiff would have been awarded $100,000 but contributed 30% to the accident, they would only receive $70,000. In cases with multiple defendants, the jury will determine the percentage of fault for each defendant and plaintiff and then reduce the award to the plaintiff by the amount of their fault.
Comparative Negligence vs. Contributory Negligence
California used to be a contributory negligence state, which stated that if the plaintiff was partially at fault for the accident, they could not claim damages. This meant that if a plaintiff was 99% not at fault, they still could not claim damages. In 1975, the California Supreme Court ruled that the law was unfair, so it was replaced with the comparative negligence law.
Primary Responsibility in California Car Accidents
The standard of comparative negligence can be divided into pure comparative negligence and modified comparative negligence. California is a pure comparative negligence state, which allows a plaintiff to recover damages even if they were primarily at fault for the accident – their damages would just be reduced by the percentage of their fault.
Other states employ a modified comparative negligence standard. It depends on the state, but the modified comparative negligence states usually have a 50% rule or a 51% rule. In states with the 50% rule, if a plaintiff is 50% or more at fault for the accident, they cannot recover damages. And in states with a 51% rule, a plaintiff who is 51% or more at fault cannot recover damages.
What Happens if Both Sides Sue For Damages?
Many times, both parties in an accident are injured. When this happens, one party will file a claim for their injuries, and the other party will file a counterclaim for theirs. During the trial, if the jury determines that both sides are partially at fault for the accident, they will also decide the percentage of damages for each party.
For instance, if Driver A sues Driver B and Driver B counterclaims for damages from Driver A, the jury may decide that Driver A is 40% at fault for the accident. The jury also determines that Driver A's damages are $100,000 and Driver B's are $40,000. Driver A would be awarded $60,000 from Driver B (40% of $100,000), and Driver B would be awarded $24,000 (60% of $40,000).
In cases with more than two parties at fault, the jury would make the same decisions on fault and damages as above.
The bottom line is that if you are involved in a motor vehicle accident in California, whether you are partially at fault or not, you may be entitled to compensation. A skilled and experienced Los Angeles Personal Injury attorney can help you untangle the confusion, and lead you to the best possible outcome for your case.