In California, you can recover money after a car crash even if you were partially at fault. Here’s how it works.
If you’re like most people this day and age, after a car crash, you get on Google to learn about your rights, your responsibilities, and the options you might have.
When you start scrolling through online encyclopedias and law firm websites, you begin to run into terminology you’ve probably never encountered before — the kinds of terms that don’t really mean anything outside of a courtroom or a law school textbook.
You also start to find lots of outdated legal information, or laws that apply in some states but not the one you’re living in. That’s dangerous because even though the United States is one country, the law on car accident compensation can look very different from state to state.
Case in point: a rule called comparative fault.
Comparative fault is one of those legal terms that, despite consisting of just two words, comes with a whole mountain of precedent (and requires a good deal of explanation).
It’s also a rule that looks different in California than in some other states. In fact, some states don’t have the rule at all. For that matter, once upon a time, California didn’t follow the rule of comparative fault either!
So what is comparative fault in a car accident claim? When does it apply, how does it work, and what does it mean for your bottom line (the amount of money you take home to compensate for your injuries)?
Let’s dive in.
What Is Comparative Fault in a Car Accident Claim?
When you get hurt in a car crash, you (the plaintiff) can file a claim against the other driver (the defendant).
If the defendant was 100% at fault, he or she will be liable for 100% of your damages.
But what if the defendant isn’t exactly 100% at fault? What if the car crash was mostly the defendant’s fault, but you were a little bit negligent too?
Different jurisdictions have answered this question differently.
California’s answer is the rule of comparative fault (sometimes called “comparative negligence,” not to be confused with “contributory negligence,” which we’ll explain later).
To decide how much money you can receive, the court will compare your fault to the defendant’s, assigning each party a percentage of fault. The plaintiff’s total financial recovery will then be reduced by his or her percentage of fault.
An Example of Comparative Fault in a Car Accident Claim
To better understand how comparative fault works in California, let’s consider a simple hypothetical. We’ll return to this example again later in this article.
Lucy is driving down 21st Street in Downtown Bakersfield and makes a left turn onto Chester Avenue. At that moment, Ricky, who is traveling in the opposite direction on 21st, runs a red light while speeding. He crashes into Lucy’s car, causing her $100,000 in damages.
It certainly looks like Ricky caused the accident. He was speeding and ran a red light. But upon investigation, it turns out that Lucy was using her smartphone while making that turn. If she had been paying attention, she might have seen Ricky coming in time to stop.
Lucy files a claim against Ricky’s auto insurance. The insurance company takes an unreasonable position, telling Lucy they won’t give her more than $20,000 because she was texting. Lucy hires a lawyer and files suit against the insurance company.
After careful consideration (and after hearing arguments from the attorneys on both sides), the court decides that Lucy was 20% at fault for her accident, and Ricky was 80% at fault.
In this situation, since Lucy’s damages totaled $100,000 but she was 20% at fault, her total damages will be reduced by 20%. She is entitled to recover $80,000 from Rickey’s insurance company (four times the settlement they originally offered her).
Of course, these facts and figures are all hypothetical. They may not bear any relation to the facts or financial numbers involved in any legal claim you might have. But as a general example, it illustrates the basic principle of comparative fault and how it works.
Who Decides the Apportionment of Fault?
In our hypothetical above, Lucy took her claim all the way to court. In that case, the responsibility of apportioning fault will usually fall to the jury.
In civil courtroom proceedings, jurors are considered the “finders of fact,” meaning it’s their job to work through the facts and evidence. (If the trial is not a jury trial, the judge will serve as the finder of fact instead.)
But most car accident claims in California never go to court. Instead, plaintiffs will often hire a personal injury attorney, who can help them negotiate for a fair financial settlement from the insurance company without going to court (because courtroom trials tend to be expensive, time-consuming, and stressful for the accident victim).
Who decides the percentage of fault if the case never goes to trial? The attorneys on each side will engage in negotiation — drawing on the facts, evidence, relevant precedent, and applicable law — in an attempt to agree on those percentages privately.
Here is where it’s very important that you be represented by an attorney with extensive experience, not only in negotiation but also in trial advocacy (because the insurance company’s adjustors and attorneys need to understand that your claim could go to trial and cost them a lot of money if they aren’t reasonable during negotiations).
As Bakersfield car accident lawyers, one of our roles in comparative fault cases is to advocate for the largest possible apportionment of fault to the defendant(s) in order to maximize the plaintiff’s compensation.
What If the Plaintiff is Mostly at Fault?
Let’s revisit Lucy & Ricky’s story, but this time, let’s change a few facts.
Ricky still runs the red light while speeding, and Lucy still suffers $100,000 in damages. But this time, in addition to texting, Lucy was speeding too — and her blood alcohol level was over the legal limit. On top of that, her light was yellow when she reached the intersection, and she punched the gas to get through as it was turning red.
This time, the court (or the attorneys, by way of private agreement) might decide that Lucy was 70% at fault for the accident.
Can she still recover?
In California, yes. That’s because our state follows a version of comparative fault called “pure comparative negligence.” Under this version of the rule, Lucy can recover even if she is 99% at fault! Just as we’ve already seen, her total damages will be reduced by whatever percentage of fault is assigned to her.
Note that some states follow a version of the rule called “modified comparative negligence” instead. In those states, once the plaintiff’s percentage of fault exceeds a certain number (usually 49, 50, or 51%), the plaintiff gets zero recovery. That rule is increasingly popular around the country, but it does not apply in California.
What if Multiple Parties Are at Fault?
How does one apply comparative fault in a car accident claim where there are multiple parties?
Imagine, for example, that Lucy and Ricky end up in a four-way collision with Fred and Ethel… and there’s evidence that all four of them were doing something negligent!
Even in this more complicated scenario, the rule of comparative fault works in essentially the same way. Each party will be assigned a percentage of fault. That said, these situations do tend to turn complex quite quickly. It is especially imperative that you talk with an experienced lawyer to understand your rights in such thorny factual scenarios.
Comparative Fault vs. Contributory Negligence
We want to quickly clarify something for those of you who might have read about a different rule while browsing the web. Some states use a rule called contributory negligence, which would lead to a very different conclusion for Lucy.
Under contributory negligence, if Lucy is even 1% at fault for her accident, she gets a $0 recovery. Period. Even in our original hypothetical, where Ricky was clearly quite reckless, he wouldn’t have to pay Lucy one cent if the court decided that she was negligent because she was texting.
A long time ago, California followed the rule of contributory negligence. But not anymore. So please make no mistake about it: comparative fault is the rule of law for California car accident claims. “Contributory negligence” never applies.
The Law Offices of Mickey Fine Can Fight to Maximize Your Compensation
If you have been injured in an auto accident in Bakersfield, Manhattan Beach, or anywhere else in the Golden State, you may be entitled to compensation for your damages.
At The Law Offices of Mickey Fine, we are here to help. Let us guide you throughout the claims process, fighting to maximize your compensation at every turn.
To learn more about your rights and options after a car crash in California, call our office and schedule a free, no-obligation case review.
We will never charge a fee for our services unless we get you money first. The initial consultation is absolutely free. Call 661-333-3333 in Bakersfield (or 310-546-8146 in Manhattan Beach, CA) or contact us online right away.