Car Accident Compensation in California

January 11, 2023 | Article by Matt Clark | Tips & Information

Car Accident Compensation in California

Motor vehicle accidents are startling and messy—leaving behind broken glass, crumpled metal, injuries, and, sometimes, a void from the loss of a loved one. If you were in an accident that wasn’t your fault, you may be vaguely aware that the responsible driver’s insurance company should pay for some of the expenses you see piling up.

The best way to maximize your car accident compensation is to hire an experienced car accident lawyer. But exactly what car accident compensation is available to motorists in California—and how do you get it?

Three Types of Car Accident Compensation

The easiest way to understand compensation for an auto accident is to learn the three main categories of compensation:

  1. Economic damages
  2. Non-economic damages
  3. Punitive damages

Economic and non-economic damages are often grouped together in a category called compensatory damages—because they compensate accident victims for specific costs like medical treatments and intangibles like pain and suffering.

Economic and non-economic damages are in contrast to punitive damages, which punish defendants in extraordinary cases for deliberate or willful negligence.

Let’s take a look at these three categories in detail.

Economic damages are the simplest type of auto accident compensation. They cover items for which you can calculate a specific dollar amount—reimbursing you for money you’ve already spent or will need to spend to fix your car or treat your injuries.

In a car accident claim for economic damages, you can seek compensation for nearly anything you have to pay for as a result of your car accident. It’s a good idea to keep detailed records of your car repair and treatment-related expenses (e.g., medical bills) to substantiate your insurance claim.

Economic damages commonly include:

  • Property damage: The biggest expense in this category is usually the cost of repairing or replacing your vehicle. However, property damage compensation can also cover belongings that were in your car and were damaged or destroyed in an accident (e.g., your phone, laptop, or saxophone).
  • Medical expenses: Compensation for medical expenses includes everything needed to take care of the injuries you sustained in a car accident—both past and future medical treatment. These expenses can include money spent on:
    • Ambulance rides
    • Surgery and/or a hospital stay
    • Doctors’ visits
    • Transportation to doctors’ visits
    • Medical devices (e.g., a prosthetic leg, a portable oxygen tank, or a wheelchair)
    • Prescription and over-the-counter medications
    • Rehab
    • Occupational or physical therapy
    • At-home nursing care
  • Lost wages: If you miss time from work while recovering from accident-related injuries, you can seek compensation for these lost wages in an injury claim or lawsuit. The term lost wages also applies to:
    • Bonuses you would have earned if you were working
    • Reduced capacity to work. For example, suppose you worked as a shift supervisor, but you have to take a lower-paying job after your car accident.
  • Disability: If your injuries leave you unable to work—temporarily or permanently—you can seek disability compensation.
  • Funeral and burial costs: If a family member is killed in a car accident, the economic damages in a wrongful death claim can cover the cost of their funeral and burial.

Non-economic damages resulting from a car accident are not as simple to estimate as economic damages, because they compensate you for things you endure that have no direct link to a dollar amount.

The example that most people have heard of is pain and suffering. But here’s a more comprehensive list of what non-economic damages may include:

  • Physical pain
  • Emotional distress: This may include anxiety, depression, anguish, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Disability: The noneconomic portion of disability compensation covers the emotional aspect of being reduced in capacity.
  • Disfigurement: This is compensation for an injury that permanently alters your physical appearance, such as scarring or the loss of a limb.
  • Loss of consortium: This is a legal term for changes in your experience and enjoyment of a relationship; for example:
    • Suppose you are no longer able to support your spouse financially. Your spouse is experiencing loss of consortium.
    • Suppose the constant pain from your injuries prevents you from being emotionally supportive of your family in the same way you were before the accident. Your family is experiencing loss of consortium.
  • Loss of companionship: In a wrongful death claim, a bereaved spouse can seek compensation for the loss of the company of their partner.

Punitive damages are a less common category of car accident compensation. They’re unavailable in cases that settle out of court—you can only receive punitive damages through a lawsuit. A judge or jury awards a plaintiff with punitive damages to penalize someone who acted with flagrant negligence resulting in an accident that injured others.

The California Civil Code (Section 3294) limits punitive damages to cases in which the defendant is “guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice.”

For example, punitive damages might apply if . . .

  • A drunk driver loses control and plows into another vehicle. The driver’s decision to drive while intoxicated shows a deliberate disregard for other people’s safety.
  • A driver is angry because someone cuts them off on the freeway. They willfully ignore traffic laws and safe driving practices, pursue the other driver, and end up causing a serious accident.
  • A trucking company knows that one of their vehicles is badly in need of maintenance. However, they allow the truck to be used for a last-minute delivery. If the truck has a mechanical failure and causes an accident, the trucking company may be found liable for punitive damages—in addition to economic and noneconomic damages.

The following chart summarizes the most common terms for the various types of car accident compensation.

Car Accident Compensation Terms
Compensatory Damages
Punitive Damages
Economic DamagesNoneconomic DamagesDamages awarded by a jury to punish a defendant who acted with bad intentions or deliberate carelessness.
Damages that reimburse a plaintiff for quantifiable expenses (e.g., medical bills)Damages that compensate a plaintiff for intangible things like pain and suffering

When a car accident causes property damage and injuries, the person or entity that caused the accident must pay the damages determined in an insurance settlement or in court.

Persons or entities that pay car accident compensation may include:

  • Insurance companies: In most cases, the at-fault driver’s insurance company covers both economic and non-economic damages.
  • At-fault drivers: If the damages exceed an at-fault driver’s insurance coverage, an accident victim can seek compensation from the at-fault driver through a lawsuit.
  • Third parties: Accidents sometimes involve third parties. For example, in a truck accident, both the truck driver and their employer may be liable for damages. In an accident involving an on-duty government employee, both the government worker and the agency that employs them may be liable for damages. A good car accident attorney can help determine if any third parties may be liable for your accident.

Factors That Affect Car Accident Compensation

The best way to get an idea of what your case may be worth is to talk to a knowledgeable car accident lawyer. But here’s a short list of some of the most important factors related to car accident compensation:

  • Pure comparative fault: California applies a legal principle called pure comparative fault to car accident damages. According to this principle, multiple people and entities can be at fault for an accident. Each party’s degree of fault is expressed as a percentage. If you are 10% at fault for your accident, you can only collect 90% of the damages for the accident.
  • Severity of injuries: More severe injuries typically mean a larger car accident settlement.
  • Degree of negligence: Compensation may be higher when the at-fault driver was exceptionally careless or reckless.
  • Third-party involvement: Car accident compensation tends to be higher when a third party is involved in the accident—a driver’s employer, a car manufacturer, or a government entity.
  • Insurance limits: An insurance company pays damages only up to the limit of the at-fault driver’s liability insurance. Suppose your medical bills are $30,000, but the at-fault driver only carries California’s minimum bodily injury liability limit of $15,000. The at-fault driver’s insurance company will only pay $15,000. For more compensation, you must use your underinsured motorist coverage (if you have it) or sue the at-fault driver.

Bakersfield Car Accident Attorneys

Car accident insurance claims and lawsuits are complicated, especially when it comes to things like rebuffing lowball insurance offers, negotiating non-economic damages, or proving third-party involvement and liability. The car accident lawyers at Chain | Cohn | Clark have the experience and expertise to guide you through the claims process to get the insurance settlement you deserve or, if necessary, to take your case to trial.

There’s no cost or obligation to talk to us, so contact us today for a free consultation.