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Vehicle Accidents and California’s Comparative Negligence Laws

In personal injury cases, the discussion often centers around liability. Liability is the legal way of saying “responsibility.” If someone is hurt, it’s the court’s job to decide who is responsible, or liable.

In motor vehicle accidents, courts rarely assume that one person is completely responsible. This is why we have trials to begin with. Judges understand that everyone is responsible for their actions and that there is usually “blame” to go around. To that end, states have come up with two different systems for assigning liability in a car accident.

Liability Models

Contributory Negligence

Some states – only five, to be exact – use a model of “contributory negligence.” In this model, both sides are heard. The plaintiff, the one doing the suing, wants the court to see how it was all the other person’s fault. The defendant, the one being sued, claims that it was really the plaintiff who was responsible.

If the defendant successfully argues that the plaintiff was responsible, they can file a counterclaim against the defendant, and the whole case is dropped.

Comparative Negligence

The vast majority of states use the comparative negligence model in personal injury lawsuits. This model may seem complicated, but it’s pretty simple once you understand it. First, the court hears both sides of an argument. After reviewing the facts, judges assign a percentage of blame to each side, totaling 100%. They can rule any percent they want. So, they can say that the plaintiff was 31% responsible for the accident, and the defendant was 69% liable.

From there, the court gives a total reward for the injury. Let’s say the judge agrees that the total damages should equal $30,000. From that total, the plaintiff will receive only the defendant’s percentage of liability. It looks something like this:

  • Total damages = $30,000
  • Plaintiff’s liability = 31%
  • Defendant’s liability = 69%

In this scenario, the plaintiff may receive $20,700, which is 69% of the total compensation.

Most comparative negligence states use a model of “modified comparative negligence.” In this system, the plaintiff will not receive any money if they are found to be 51% responsible or more. Only 13 states use a “pure comparative negligence” model. California is one of these states.

Pure Comparative Negligence in California

According to California’s pure comparative negligence laws, if a defendant is at all responsible for an injury, the plaintiff can still receive money. This means that, yes, a judge can decree that the plaintiff was 99% responsible for their own injuries and still give them money. In our above example, that means the plaintiff goes home with $300, which is 1% of $30,000.

Vehicle Accidents

Roadway injuries are particularly susceptible to comparative negligence percentages. Unless someone was standing perfectly still and was hit by a flying motorcycle, it’s likely that they had some part in their own injuries. Everyone involved was probably traveling somewhere, which involved following rules and operating vehicles of their own. Even pedestrians have a set of rules and precautions they are expected to take.

So, let’s say someone was hit while stopped at a traffic light. On the surface, it may seem like they were completely in the right, and the other driver was completely liable. That may not be the case. Were their break lights out? Sure, the other driver should have been slowing to a stop anyway, but maybe they didn’t see brake lights and thought they had more room.

In that case, the driver who hit the stopped car can bring a lawsuit. Maybe they got whiplash in the wreck and need some compensation. They can, in theory, sue for that injury. Even if they are sure that the judge will find them more at fault for the accident, they might still be able to receive at least some reward.

Risks of Comparative Negligence

Make sure to talk to an attorney before pursuing any injury case, especially if you’re unsure about your percentage of fault. If you are found more at fault, there is the possibility that the defense could countersue. A good lawyer can help you craft an argument that demonstrates the other person’s fault and helps protect you in the process.

If you’ve been hurt in a car accident, call us today at (916) 571-0400 or contact us online. We will help you assess the details of your accident and work toward getting you the highest percentage of the compensation you deserve.