In any accident, fault must be established as it is critical in determining the compensation the plaintiff recovers. Fault is defined as the responsibility a party bears for the incident and to what degree. California is a comparative negligence/fault state. It means that an injured individual in an accident can recover damages even if he/she partially bears responsibility for the accident.

Comparative negligence can either be modified or pure. California is a pure comparative fault state, meaning a plaintiff, the accident victim, can still recover damages even if he/she is 99% at fault. Under the modified comparative doctrine, you cannot recover damages if you are 50% or more at fault for the accident. Therefore, understanding comparative negligence and fault is pivotal in helping you assess the possible outcomes of your personal injury claim.

Comparative Negligence and Fault - Overview

In personal injury lawsuits, the fundamental question is, “Who bears responsibility for the accident?”

The jury considers the submissions by the plaintiff and the defendant and determines who is at fault for the accident. The jury further assigns fault as a percentage depending on the circumstances of the case.

The immediate assumption is that since the plaintiff is suing the defendant, it must be automatic that the defendant is at-fault and bears the burden of the injuries the plaintiff suffers 100%. However, the circumstances could lead the jury to believe that the plaintiff also carries responsibility for the incident. Personal injury attorneys help you maximize the probability of the jury ruling in your favor.

Plaintiffs seek damages for their injuries or suffering. The degree of fault assigned by the jury determines the portion of the damages awarded in the lawsuit a plaintiff receives. If the plaintiff is 100% at fault, the plaintiff is awarded 100% of the damages. If the plaintiff is partially to blame for the accident, he/she is awarded damages proportional to the defendant’s degree of fault or fails to receive any compensation.

Comparative law allows for fault to be apportioned to the defendant and the plaintiff, guided by the circumstances as presented in the trial. Under the law, a plaintiff will receive a portion of the damages awarded in the case proportional to the defendant’s contribution to the harm.

When a plaintiff sues the defendant, a defendant will demonstrate that the plaintiff’s negligence either caused or contributed to the accident. The defendant aims to reduce his/her liability, thus decreasing the overall value he/she has to pay the plaintiff. The jury will consider the defendant’s claim, and if they are convinced, they will apportion blame to the plaintiff.

For example, if the jury determines that the defendant is 60% at fault and you at 40% and issues a $1 Million award, you can only recover 60%. Therefore, your compensation will be $600,000. In this case, the jury believes the defendant bears 60% blame for the accident, and you, the plaintiff, were 40% at fault for the accident.

Determining the Degree of Responsibility in a Comparative Fault Case

It is crucial to point out that a judge or a jury can assign responsibility in a personal injury case. Juries will be instructed on the comparative fault of the plaintiff.

First, the defense will claim that the plaintiff’s negligence contributed to the harm he/she suffered. The defense will argue that either the plaintiff was negligent and thus caused the harm or his/her negligence was a substantial factor in causing the injury he/she suffered.

Juries consider the evidence presented by the defendant in the above claims. The percentage of fault assigned points to the degree of fault a jury believes a plaintiff bears. Further, the percentage of fault assigned by the jury to the parties or non-parties in the suit all add up to 100%.

The damages to be awarded are determined independently from the fault assigned to all parties. The jury will evaluate the value of the damages to award in the case. In personal injury lawsuits, plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages. Compensatory damages restore the plaintiff to a state before the accident. Therefore, it caters to the losses a plaintiff suffers.

Personal injury attorneys have the requisite experience in determining the actual value of the loss, both past, and the likely future losses. Punitive damages, on the hand, seek to punish the defendant for his/her actions. Additionally, punitive damages deter other members of society from desisting from engaging in similar behavior.

Calculations of Compensatory and Punitive Damages

Before presenting a final figure of the damages awarded based on the lawsuit's request, juries consider several compensatory and punitive damages issues.

If it is established that the defendant is at fault, compensatory damages cover economic losses that include:

  • Lost income
  • Costs incurred in seeking treatment for the injury — Both past and future medical expenses are considered
  • Property damage, and
  • Lost earning capacity

Juries rely on the evidence presented against each of the above losses, including medical bills, payslips, and property valuation reports.

Further, the jury will also consider the noneconomic losses, losses whose dollar value is not immediately identifiable. These losses include but are not limited to:

  • Pain and suffering
  • Loss of consortium
  • Disfigurement
  • Unjust hardship
  • Emotional distress and mental anguish
  • Inconvenience

Punitive damages are only awarded if the judge is satisfied the defendant’s actions warrant punitive action. It is worth noting that your personal injury attorney will help you estimate the value of the losses you are seeking compensation for in your lawsuit. However, punitive damages are a reserve of the court.

California Civil Code 3294 allows the jury to award punitive damages. In their determination, the jury will assess whether the defendant acted with malice, fraud, or was oppressive. If so, they will award punitive damages.

The jury determines the value to award as punitive damages after considering:

  • The degree of reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct
  • An appropriate sum that will punish the defendant and discourage similar wrongdoing by others
  • Whether there is a reasonable connection between the value of the punitive damages and the actual or potential harm the plaintiff suffered

Note: If a case has several defendants, they will pay the damages awarded according to the fault the jury assigns to them.

Comparative Fault and Contributory Negligence

As pointed out earlier, comparative fault negligence allows plaintiffs to recover damages even if they bear a portion of responsibility for the accident. Comparative negligence can either be pure or modified comparative. Whereas California is a pure comparative fault state, it is vital to understand what modified comparative laws are and their impact on personal injury lawsuits.

California was a contributory negligence state before adopting the comparative negligence standard. Contributory negligence states that anyone who is partially at fault cannot recover damages.

Even if the plaintiff is 1% at fault for the accident and the defendant bears 99% responsibility, the plaintiff would not recover damages. This approach to personal injury cases was deemed unfair and necessitated the adoption of the contributory negligence standard.

The Contributory negligence rule operates in some states like Alabama, Virginia, Washington DC, North Carolina, and Maryland.

At this point, it is evident that comparative negligence allows for plaintiffs to secure damages even if they are partially responsible for their loss. What percentage of responsibility is acceptable is the differentiator between the pure and modified comparative negligence rule.

Pure Comparative Negligence

Under pure comparative negligence, a plaintiff can recover damages proportional to the defendant’s fault. If the plaintiff is primarily responsible, he/she can still recover damages equal to the defendant’s portion of damages.

For example, suppose a jury determines that the plaintiff was 70% at fault for the accident and the defendant bears 30% of the responsibility for the accident. In that case, the plaintiff can still recover damages despite him/her being significantly at fault. The defendant will pay 30% of the damages awarded in the case to the plaintiff.

Modified Comparative Negligence

The modified comparative negligence requires plaintiff’s not to cross the 50% or 51% threshold to recover damages. It means that if the jury finds a plaintiff to be more than 50% culpable for the losses he/she suffered, under the rule, he/she will not recover damages.

Some states have adopted a 50% threshold, including Nevada, Utah, Arkansas, Nebraska, Maine, Kansas, Idaho, Georgia, North Dakota, and Tennessee. States that have adopted the 51% threshold include Delaware, Connecticut, Texas, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Ohio, New Jersey, and New Hampshire.

Comparative Fault Applied in Various Personal Injury Suits

With an understanding of comparative negligence adopted in California, let us look at its application in various personal injury lawsuits.

  1. Auto Accidents

Auto accidents are diverse and could involve other vehicles, pedestrians, animals, or one vehicle. The parties at fault become the defendants in your case. Every case has different defendants. More common defendants include other drivers, vehicle manufacturers, car part dealers and manufacturers, mechanics, the city, and transport companies.

In auto accidents, proximate cause is pivotal. Simply put, proximate cause is the primary cause of an injury. Plaintiffs have to demonstrate a link between their injuries and the defendant's conduct that liability should attach.

Courts use the following tests to determine if the defendant’s actions were the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury.

  • But for test — The question posed in this test is, “Would the plaintiff's injury have occurred but for the defendant’s actions, omission, or negligent act?”
  • Substantial factor — Under this test, the question is, “Were the defendant’s actions or omissions a substantial factor in the cause of the accident that led to the injury?”

Further, the courts also consider whether the defendant could have reasonably foreseen that their actions would cause an injury. As a general rule, there is no proximate cause without foreseeability.

Car accidents that could involve comparative fault include:

  • Head-on collisions
  • Bus accidents
  • Crashes involving drivers under the influence of drugs and alcohol
  • Trucking accidents
  • Ridesharing accidents, and
  • Roll-over accidents

Note: Auto accidents can have multiple defendants. The jury will assign fault based on what contribution their actions, omissions, or negligent acts contributed to the accident that caused the plaintiff’s injuries.

  1. Premises Liability

You can seek compensation from a property owner or occupier who creates a hazardous condition that caused your injuries. Premise liability cases also apply the comparative fault principle.

Most accidents under premises liability are common in amusement parks, restaurants, and workplaces.

Property owners have a legal obligation to exercise reasonable care to avoid injuring others. This legal obligation requires the owners to:

  • Regularly inspect the property
  • Maintain the property
  • Provide adequate warning of any dangerous conditions on the premises, and
  • Repair potentially dangerous conditions

Accidents on private property are not only caused by the owner’s acts or omissions. Several factors contribute to a plaintiff’s injury. When plaintiffs are partially responsible for the accident, they still can recover damages reduced by their percentage of fault.

  1. Product Liability

Product liability suits target product manufacturers, distributors, or any other party that handles products and could compromise said product. Manufacturers are duty-bound to supply quality and safe products to consumers. Should they fail to exercise that duty and you suffer an injury, you have grounds for seeking damages against the manufacturer.

California product liability laws stipulate that any individual who designs, manufactures, or sells a defective product is strictly liable for injuries the faulty product causes. The strict liability doctrine allows defendants to be held responsible for any harm their products cause even if the defendant was not at fault or negligent for causing the injury.

Manufacturing defects, design flaws, and inadequate warning issues are enough to find a defendant liable.

Strict liability laws allow for the apportionment of fault. Defendants can argue that a plaintiff’s improper use or ignoring the directions detailed by a manufacturer contributed to or caused the injury. Should the jury determine the defendant’s claim based on the evidence presented, the plaintiff will recover damages proportional to the defendant's share of fault.

Two Parties Suing Each Other for Damages

It is not uncommon for two parties to sue each other to recover damages after an accident. In this case, the fault apportioning principles remain. The jury will separately determine which party is at fault.

If both parties are partially at fault, the jury will award damages and fault separately. The damages can be paid to each party in separate awards, or the damages will be offset against each other.

Comparative Negligence and Multiple Defendants

Some lawsuits target several parties as responsible for a plaintiff's injuries. Take a car crash, for instance. You can sue the following parties.

  • The at-fault driver — You will be required to provide evidence demonstrating that their negligent actions caused the crash that resulted in your injuries and losses. Several acts point to negligence, including driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs, texting while driving, and speeding over the speed limit, among others.
  • Vehicle manufacturer — If the vehicle’s crash can be linked to a defective car part.
  • Mechanic — If there is evidence showing they were negligent when installing a car part or servicing the vehicle

Under the comparative fault doctrine, the jury will apportion fault to the multiple defendants and the plaintiff if the evidence supports it. The plaintiff’s damages will be reduced by the portion of the plaintiff’s fault.

Let us explore the above car crash scenario. Assuming a jury finds the at-fault driver 40% liable, the vehicle manufacturer 30% at fault, the mechanic 20% at fault, and the plaintiff 10% and awards $100,000 in damages. The plaintiff will receive $90,000.

Who pays for damages in instances when both or two parties are at fault?

A plaintiff can recover damages from either or all parties responsible for the accident under the joint and several liability rule.

California's joint and several liability rule is a modified version of the old common law rule. It states that more than one party can be jointly responsible for the entire sum of a plaintiff's economic damages but only separately liable for the plaintiff's non-economic damages in proportion to the percentage of fault.

This rule favors the plaintiff. As a plaintiff, you can pursue full payment from the defendant with the deepest pockets if the other parties cannot pay. Then the defendant will seek contributions from the other parties.

If all defendants are uninsured or insolvent, you will not recover the full payment.

Following the car accident above, ideally, all the three parties will contribute to the $90,000 award. However, if the mechanic and the at-fault driver cannot pay their share of the $90,000 award, the vehicle manufacturer will be stuck with the bill and sue the mechanic and the at-fault driver to recover their share.

Contact a Los Angeles Personal Injury Attorney Near Me

Establishing fault in a personal injury case is no easy task. You need the help of a personal injury attorney to help maximize your potential compensation. The Personal Injury Attorney Law Firm team has vast experience handling personal injury matters in California. We are ready to bring our expertise and knowledge to help you secure fair compensation. Get in touch with our team today. Contact us at 800-492-6718.