Nobody in their right mind sets out to have a car accident. Even in a minor accident, like getting rear ended with minimal property damage, you might suffer neck and back injuries that haunt you for a long time.
Yet car accidents happen in California every day and bumpers get dented and people get injured. That's why it pays you to know a little bit about California car accident laws including the circumstances in which you can sue, who you can sue and how long you have to file a lawsuit for compensation.
When Can You Bring a Car Accident Lawsuit?
In California, every person is responsible for injuries caused by their own negligence. Civil Code Section 1714 provides, "Everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person..."
That is the statute authorizing a personal injury action against someone for their negligence behind the wheel. Negligence in California means failure to use ordinary care or skill while you are doing something, like driving.
The courts often talk of negligence in terms of duty of care. Every person is said to have a duty to use ordinary or reasonable care to prevent injuries to someone else or their property. When someone doesn't live up to that duty of care, they are negligent and can be held liable for injuries resulting from their negligence. If a driver failed to use ordinary care in driving and you are injured as a result, you can bring a car accident lawsuit against that driver for compensation for the losses you suffered.
Read More: California Car Accident Compensation Laws: Pure and Modified Comparative Negligence
How Do You Prove Negligence?
Usually car accident lawsuits in California are brought on the basis of negligence. But you have to do more than repeat the word a few times in your court filings. Negligence is a cause of action and has elements that must be established before anyone can be held responsible. There are four elements to a negligence cause of action. These include:
The duty you must prove is, as already noted, the duty to use ordinary or reasonable care. This duty applies to everyone in every situation. A person has to use ordinary care when riding a skateboard, firing up a barbecue or driving a vehicle down California streets. The idea is to avoid careless behavior that can hurt others.
Breach means a failure to fulfill a promise or duty. A person breaches the duty of care when they drive a car too fast, tailgate, change lanes without enough space between cars or drives while distracted. If this breach (failure to use ordinary care) causes injuries and the person injured suffers damages, you've got a car accident case for negligence.
What If Both People Were at Fault?
Fault is very rarely as cut and dry as we like to pretend it is. While the other driver may have been negligent, sometimes he isn't the only one. If you were also negligent – say you were also speeding or driving too close to the car ahead of you – can you still sue him, or does that throw you out of court?
For many years, California had a rule called contributory negligence. Under that rule, if the "victim" of an accident was negligent even a little bit, he could not bring a negligence case against the other drivers. At the extreme end of the spectrum, if the other driver was 99 percent at fault and you were one percent at fault, you would be thrown out of court.
This seems unfair today. The rule was tossed out by the California Supreme Court in 1975. In that year, the court heard an accident case and determined that result was not just and equitable using the contributory negligence rule. They replaced that rule with a comparative negligence rule. Under comparative negligence, if both parties are negligent, each can collect against the other to the extent of the other's negligence. For example, if the other party is found to be 85 percent at fault and you are 15 percent at fault, you can collect 85 percent of your damages from that other party.
Does California Use Pure or Modified Comparative Negligence?
Since California is a comparative fault state, you are allowed to recover damages from a car accident even if you were partly at fault. Most states use some version of comparative fault. The two main versions are pure comparative fault and modified comparative fault. California uses pure comparative fault.
In a pure comparative negligence state, you can recover damages from another party in an accident as long as you weren't 100 percent responsible. If a jury finds you 50 percent at fault and your damages are $100,000, you can collect $50,000 from the other driver. If you are found 80 percent at fault, you can still collect 20 percent of your damages, or $20,000.
In a modified comparative fault state, you cannot recover if you are the party primarily at fault. If you are more than 50 percent at fault in these states, you recover nothing. This is premised on the idea that if it hadn't been for your negligence, the accident wouldn't have happened. If you are less than 50 percent at fault in these states, you can recover the percentage of your damages for which the other party was responsible. For example, if you were 40 percent at fault and your damages were $100,000, the other party, who is 60 percent at fault, is liable for $60,000 of your damages.
How Long Do You Have to Bring a Lawsuit for Negligence?
Laws setting out the period of time you have to bring a cause of action are called statutes of limitations. But there is no statute of limitations per se for negligence. Statutes of limitations for car accident compensation in California depend on the kind of damages you are seeking.
For example, in a car accident you might suffer personal injuries like a broken leg or whiplash. Your car will also likely get bashed in, which is called personal property damage. Each of these will have a different statute of limitations in California.
The limitations period for personal injury in California is two years from the date of the accident, and the limitations period for personal property damage is three years from the date of the accident. Note that when you suffer injuries of which you were not aware in an accident, the statute is extended until you learn of the injuries.
What Type of Damages Can You Get for a Car Accident?
If you sue for personal injuries and property damage resulting from an accident caused by the other driver, you will be able to seek both personal injury damages and property damages. While most people understand the concept of property damage, personal injury damages are a little trickier.
Personal injury damages are compensatory damages. That means that they are awarded to compensate a person for losses they suffered. When you sue for personal injury damages, you can ask for compensation for the various losses you incurred. These losses can include things like medical bills, lost wages (from the work you missed due to the accident), lost earning capacity (if you can no longer work in the same type of employment after the accident), disfigurement, scarring, lost limbs and pain and suffering.
You can find information on how to find the right lawyer for your case on The State Bar of California's Find the Right Lawyer resource page.
- Shouse Law: California’s “Comparative Fault” Law
- Evan Walker Law: What Is The Law On Negligence In California?
- Lilejegren Law Group: What Is California’s “Comparative Fault” Law?
- Find Law: Negligence Law FAQs
- Nolo: California Car Accident Laws
- Onecle: California Civil Code 1714
- Lawyers.com: What is the Difference Between "Pure" and "Modified" Comparative Fault?
- FindLaw: California Civil Statute of Limitations Laws
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.