A classic example of a car accident lawsuit involves one blameless driver who was stopped patiently at a stoplight when a reckless and irresponsible driver slammed into the back of the first driver’s car. The first driver is injured and suffers damages, including hospital bills, lost wages, pain and suffering and more. When they go to court, a judge finds the second driver caused the accident through negligence, and therefore should be held liable for the first driver’s damages.
This type of accident happens all too often, but many accidents are not so simple. After many accidents, it’s hard to tell who was at fault. In some accidents, more than one driver did something wrong.
If you were partly at fault for the accident in which you were injured, under California law, you may be able to recover compensation for your damages through a legal theory known as comparative negligence.
Traditionally, courts held that a plaintiff whose own negligence contributed to the accident in which they were injured was barred from recovering compensation in a personal injury lawsuit. This led to many results that struck the public as unfair, and so the states began to change their laws. Most have some variation of a comparative negligence law.
California adopted what is known as a “pure” comparative negligence standard. This means a plaintiff can recover compensation in proportion to their share of fault.
Perhaps the best way to explain comparative negligence is by example.
Imagine that Maggie is driving northbound at 8 p.m. when she stops at a stoplight. Hopey drives up behind her and smashes into the rear of Maggie’s car. Maggie is injured. She files suit against Hopey, seeking $100,000 in damages.
At trial, the two sides present their evidence. Hopey’s attorney presents evidence that Maggie’s negligence contributed to the accident because, prior to the accident, Maggie’s car taillight was not working, and so Hopey could not see her car in time to stop.
The court determines that both parties were negligent and assigns a share of the fault to each. Maggie was 10% at fault, and that Hopey was 90% at fault.
Under California’s comparative negligence law, this means that Maggie can hold Hopey liable for her damages, but her recovery must be reduced by 10%. Instead of recovering $100,000, she can recover $90,000 at most.
Theoretically, at least, either party can sue the other. If Hopey suffered $100,000 in damages, she could sue Maggie for that amount. However, Hopey’s recovery must be reduced in proportion to her share of the fault. Since she was 90% at fault, her recovery will be reduced by 90%, meaning the most she could recover is $10,000.
So far, we have dealt with some simplified examples. In real life, comparative negligence cases can be quite complex. This is particularly true when more than two vehicles were involved in the accident. Applying the law to these complicated cases can be difficult.
However, comparative negligence is an important tool that can allow some injured people to recover the compensation they desperately need.