It can be difficult enough to determine fault percentages and settlement amounts in an accident involving only two vehicles. With multi-car crashes, however, things become infinitely more complicated. You're now dealing with multiple insurance companies and multiple attorneys (representing both drivers and passengers), all combing through the evidence to figure out who is at fault and how to divvy up insurance money (which may also be capped at a certain amount). It can be overwhelming at best—even more so when you've been injured and are waiting for settlement money to cover your costs.
Fortunately, California tort law provides guidelines to help attorneys and insurance companies (and the courts) figure out fault and damages piece by piece. However, the process is complex and tedious, and it may require multiple lawsuits before everything is sorted out—so it may take more time to receive your settlement than if you were in a simple crash involving another driver. Additionally, having an experienced personal injury attorney in your corner is imperative to ensure your rights are protected and that you receive the full settlement amount to which you're entitled.
Let's take a closer look at some of the complex factors determining fault and damages in a multi-car crash in California.
Potential Conflicts between Drivers and Passengers
Drivers in a multi-car accident may not be the only people at fault. Sometimes, one or more passengers may also factor in when determining comparative negligence in a multi-car crash. Some examples of how this can "muddy the waters" in hashing out settlements:
- Passengers and drivers may be both claimants (injured parties) and defendants (at-fault drivers), making it even more complicated to figure out settlements in a comparative negligence state like California.
- Passengers may share fault for their own injuries even if they are in the victim's car. (For example, if a passenger is thrown from the vehicle because they weren't wearing a seat belt).
- If both the passenger and driver of one vehicle use the same attorney, it creates a conflict of interest, especially if the passenger and driver are both potentially at-fault.
- If the driver of the vehicle is limited under Proposition 213 from claiming certain damages, the passenger in the same vehicle may still collect full damages.
Division of Policy Among All Claimants
Once it is determined who is at fault in a crash involving multiple vehicles (whether it's one person or several), insurance policies have maximum limits as to what they will pay. When there are multiple victims, this money may run out faster. Thus, figuring out a fair division of policy benefits is a key factor in resolving multi-car crash claims. Some ways this can be accomplished include:
- Pro-rata distribution: The policy pays out proportionately to all victims taking into account the extent of their injuries and reducing their settlement by their percentage of shared fault. (However, pro-rata is not always accurate as medical bills don't always reflect the extent of the injury—for example, a brain injury may require minimal treatment up front but cause more complications later after settlement funds have been distributed).
- Mediation/waiver: An alternative to pro-rata distribution that involves mediation between all potential claimants and at-fault parties (and preferably their attorneys) to hash out who gets what.
One of the most frustrating complications in a multi-car case is when there are missing claimants. These are people who were involved in the accident and may be eligible for a portion of the settlement, but they cannot be located or become unresponsive. By law, division of policy funds cannot be distributed fairly unless and until these missing claimants are accounted for. There are basically only two remedies when this happens:
- Statute of limitations: In the State of California, the statute of limitations for personal injury claims is two years from the date of the accident. If the missing claimants don't come forward within that time frame, then their portion of the settlement can be divided among the other claimants.
- Private investigator: One way to accelerate the settlement is to hire a private investigator to track down the missing claimant(s) and get them to waive their claim in writing. While this can be fairly expensive on the front end, it may be worthwhile if the settlement amount is substantial.