What Is California's Comparative Negligence Law?

If you're involved in an accident that results in personal injury, you can seek damages even if you are partially at fault for the accident. However, in some states, those who suffer injuries in an accident cannot claim damages if they are more than 50% responsible.

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    California’s comparative negligence law divides the fault and uses that ratio to determine the damages a plaintiff can receive (even if they are more than 50% at fault). In law cases involving comparative negligence, the defendant makes a claim that the plaintiff’s negligence contributed to their injuries and the jury decides what percentage of fault to assign to each party. This law can potentially reduce the injury party’s award.

    The California personal injury lawyers at Cutter Law P.C. can help with questions about shared fault in an injury accident.

    California's Pure Comparative Negligence Law Explained

    According to the California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 405, if the defendant claims that the plaintiff was partially responsible for the accident, they must prove that the plaintiff was also negligent and that their negligence contributed to their injuries. If the defendant can convince the jury, the jury then determines how much fault to assign to the plaintiff and reduces their award by that amount. Additionally, the total responsibility assigned among all defendants and plaintiffs must equal 100%.

    California uses this standard in determining negligence liability, as outlined in California Civil Code Section 1714. The following injury cases may be affected by this law:

    This progressive law allows a plaintiff to recover damages even if they are partially to blame for the accident. So theoretically, you could be 99% responsible for an accident and still receive 1% of the damages requested, according to California Civil Code Section 1714.

    Li v. Yellow Cab Co., 532 P.2d 1226 (1975) set the precedent for pure comparative fault laws in the state. The case involved a traffic accident where both the plaintiff and defendant drove negligently. Li, the plaintiff, tried to cross three lanes against oncoming traffic to pull into a service station. A Yellow Cab driver, the defendant, was traveling over the speed limit and ran a yellow light before hitting Li’s car. At the time, California law followed the doctrine of contributory negligence and would not have awarded Li any damages. However, the California Supreme Court decided against the all-or-nothing approach of contributory negligence in favor of comparative negligence. This allowed the plaintiff to recover for damages even though they were partly responsible for the accident.

    California’s Change From Contributory Negligence to Comparative Negligence

    The doctrine of contributory negligence holds that the plaintiff cannot sue if they share responsibility for the accident. In contrast, comparative negligence assigns percentages of fault to both the plaintiff and defendant and allows the plaintiff to recover damages according to the defendant’s percentage of fault.

    In a pure comparative negligence doctrine, a plaintiff can receive a partial personal injury award if the defendant is at least 1% at fault. However, under modified comparative negligence, the plaintiff recovers nothing if they are 50% or more to blame for the accident.

    The Li vs. Yellow Cab Co. case signaled a significant shift in personal-injury law in California.

    You Can Still Recover if You Were Primarily at Fault for an Accident.

    The pure aspect of comparative negligence in California means that you can recover personal injury reimbursement even if you hold most of the blame for an accident. So, if you can show that the plaintiff was 1% responsible and you were 99% at fault, you can still receive 1% of your total-case value in a court decision against the defendant.

    Who determines the percentage of fault in California injury cases?

    In some cases, the judge determines the percentage of fault. However, typically the jury, following the judge’s instructions, determines the ratio of responsibility for the plaintiff and defendant.

    In practice, a defendant makes a claim against a plaintiff, saying they contributed to the accident as well. The jury then receives specific instructions on assigning fault under California’s comparative negligence rules and does so to the best of their ability.

    Under California Civil Jury Instructions No. 405, the jury follows specific instructions to assign blame. According to the State Bar of California, if you are an accident victim and share partial responsibility, the California courts base the assignment of negligence on four elements:

    • Duty
    • Breach of Duty
    • Causation
    • Damages

    The jury should not assign blame unless there is significant evidence to back up the claim. The percentage of all blame assigned must total 100%. Both the defendant and plaintiff may be assigned a percentage of the blame.

    Here is an example of how this plays out in practice: If your total case value is $100,000 and the jury assigns you 20% responsibility, you will only receive $80,000.

    How does comparative negligence work with multiple responsible parties?

    Comparative negligence works similarly even if there are multiple responsible parties. The judge and jury follow the same process to assign fault and use it to award a percentage of the total-case value. The term “joint and several” means that damages can be recovered from either or both parties at fault. For example, if the plaintiff can collect the full amount of damages from either responsible party, the defendants can then file their own claims against one another for the amount awarded in damages. 

    Joint and several liability is for economic damages only, as explained in California Civil Code Section 1431. According to California Civil Code Section 1431.2, non-economic damages must be recovered separately from each individual defendant for their apportioned percentage of responsibility for those specific types of damages.

    Contact Cutter Law P.C. Today for Help With Your Personal Injury Case

    If you recently suffered personal injuries and were partially at fault in the accident, it’s essential to understand your options. You can still recover compensation thanks to California’s comparative negligence laws.

    Let our attorneys help you determine the factors around your accident and minimize the percentage of fault assigned to you. By building evidence, you can counter excessive claims by the defendants and capitalize on the state’s comparative negligence doctrine to maximize your settlement.

    We have experience with comparative negligence in all types of personal injury cases, including motorcycle and pedestrian accidents, where our attorneys have recovered over $500,000 for clients. Please refer to our case results to see the kinds of settlements we have won for our clients in the past.

    Call or contact us today to learn more about how we can help if you were partially responsible for your injury accident.

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    Sacramento Office
    401 Watt Avenue Suite 100
    Sacramento, CA 95864
    Phone: 916-290-9400

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    Cutter Law P.C.
    1999 Harrison Street Suite 1400
    Oakland, CA 94612

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