California Comparative Negligence: Assigning Fault in Personal Injury Cases

July 20, 2023 | Article by Chain | Cohn | Clark staff | Tips & Information

California Comparative Negligence: Assigning Fault in Personal Injury Cases

It’s normal to feel bothered when you witness something unfair. Even from a very young age, most human beings develop a sense of fair play. We divide the cookies evenly between us and our friends; we might speak up if we see the wrong kid punished for an infraction at school.

Laws in California and elsewhere seek to codify our human desire for justice, but these laws are far more complex than childhood transactions among friends or schoolroom discipline. In this blog, we’ll look at the essential legal elements of California personal injury cases, focusing particularly on how fault is assigned.

Personal Injury Cases: Duty of Care and Negligence

Personal injury law is a broad area of practice that covers things such as:

  • Injuries resulting from car, motorcycle, truck, or pedestrian accidents
  • Dog bite injuries
  • Illness or injury due to medical malpractice
  • A slip and fall at a grocery store (premises liability)
  • Injuries caused by defective products

Most of the time, proving a personal injury claim involves proving negligence.

Negligence: Failure to Exercise “Ordinary Care”

Section 1714(a) of the California Civil Code says, “Everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person.”

In other words, you are personally responsible—or liable—for both your actions (“willful acts”) and lack of action (“want of ordinary care or skill”).

For example, if Driver A is speeding, they are negligent. If they cause an accident because they’re driving too fast, and the accident injures Driver B, they could be held responsible for Driver B’s medical bills and pain and suffering.

Proving Negligence

Generally, to win a personal injury case in California, you must prove that the defendant was negligent. There are exceptions—cases in which strict liability is applied (see below).

According to Section 400 of the Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions (known as CACI), proving negligence in California requires a plaintiff to show:

  1. The defendant was negligent.
  2. The plaintiff was harmed.
  3. The defendant’s negligence was “a substantial factor” in causing the harm.

What Types of Damages Can Be Awarded in Personal Injury Cases?

If a plaintiff successfully proves that a defendant’s negligence caused an injury, property damage, or both, the plaintiff can be awarded damages—monetary compensation.

There are three basic types of damages:

  1. Economic damages pay for things with a clear dollar value, such as medical bills, rehabilitation costs, and lost wages.
  2. Noneconomic damages are granted for intangible things like pain and suffering, mental anguish, and loss of enjoyment of life.
  3. Punitive damages are given in extreme cases involving oppression, fraud, or malice (see California Civil Code Section 3294) to punish grossly negligent defendants. Note that punitive damages are not available in all personal injury cases in California; for example, they aren’t available in medical malpractice cases.

But what happens when a personal injury case isn’t clear-cut? What if more than one party is responsible for causing an accident? What if the injured person is partly to blame?

Let’s look at comparative fault laws to understand how California law handles such cases.

Comparative Fault Laws

Comparative fault laws in California and around the country tackle the issue of multiple people or parties being responsible for an injury. The legal doctrines vary from state to state, but they all recognize that there’s often not just one person at fault, say, in a car accident.

Consider the example we used earlier—when Driver A was speeding. Suppose Driver B runs a red light in front of Driver A, and Driver A’s car collides with Driver B’s car. Driver A breaks an arm and sues Driver B. A jury might decide that both drivers are partly to blame—Driver B for running a red light and Driver A for speeding.

There are three basic legal approaches to assigning fault in this and other personal injury cases:

  1. Contributory negligence
  2. Modified comparative negligence
  3. Pure comparative negligence

What Is Contributory Negligence?

The oldest of these three legal doctrines is contributory negligence, and up until 1975, it was applied in California personal injury cases. Under contributory negligence, you can’t collect any damages if you are at all to blame—even just 1% responsible—for an accident that caused your injuries.

Under contributory negligence, for instance, if a jury found that Driver A was 5% responsible for the accident in the scenario above, they would be unable to collect any damages—even if the accident was 95% due to Driver B running a red light.

The use of contributory negligence in California was based on a narrow interpretation of Section 1714 of the California Civil Code. Section 1714 holds everyone responsible for willful and negligent acts that injure others “except so far as the [injured person] has, willfully or by want of ordinary care, brought the injury upon himself or herself.” In other words, the reasoning went, if you were partly to blame, the negligent party bore no responsibility at all.

In a landmark 1975 case (Li v. Yellow Cab Co.), the California Supreme Court declared the doctrine of contributory negligence “no longer applicable in California courts” and ruled that contributory negligence “must give way to a system of comparative negligence, which assesses liability in direct proportion to fault.”

Today, 46 out of 50 states use some form of comparative negligence; only four states still follow the doctrine of contributory negligence.

What Is Modified Comparative Negligence?

Most states judge personal injury cases using the doctrine of modified comparative negligence. Under modified comparative negligence, plaintiffs can recover damages even if they’re partly to blame for an accident, but only to a certain extent.

States that use modified comparative negligence apply one of two rules:

  1. The 50% rule states that if a plaintiff is 50% or more responsible for an accident, they cannot collect damages.
  2. The 51% rule states that if a plaintiff is 51% or more responsible for an accident, they cannot collect damages.

In either case, if a plaintiff’s share of the blame for an accident is below the legal threshold, they can collect damages in proportion to the other party’s share of blame.

In other words, if a jury finds that Driver B’s red light violation is 80% to blame for the collision with Driver A (who is 20% to blame because they were speeding), Driver A can only collect 80% of the damages awarded. If the damages are $10,000, Driver A only receives $8,000.

However, in a state that uses the 50% rule, if the jury finds that Driver A is 50% to blame, Driver A receives nothing—despite Driver B sharing 50% of the blame for the accident.

What Is Pure Comparative Negligence?

California is one of a dozen states that uses the pure comparative negligence rule to assign blame in personal injury cases. Under pure comparative negligence, plaintiffs can recover damages in a personal injury case regardless of the percentage of fault they bear.

For example—although this is an unlikely scenario—suppose Driver B runs a red light in front of Driver A. Driver A’s car collides with Driver B’s car, and Driver B breaks a leg. Driver B sues Driver A, arguing that Driver B caused the accident. If a jury rules that Driver B is 95% to blame and Driver A is only 5% to blame for the accident, Driver B can still collect 5% of any damages awarded under pure comparative negligence.

[Did you know that side-impact collisions like the one in this scenario are the second most common type of car crash? Learn about the most common types of car accidents on the Chain | Cohn | Clark blog.]

The point of pure comparative negligence is not to accommodate those primarily to blame for car accidents. The point is to rectify the inherent injustice of contributory negligence, preventing accident victims from receiving compensation because they bear even a small proportion of the blame.

A Pure Comparative Negligence Example

Suppose Driver C is severely injured in a car accident while not wearing a seat belt, but the accident is Driver D’s fault. Driver C has violated the California Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which mandates seat belt use. Driver C sues Driver D for damages. Driver D uses the seat belt defense outlined in CACI Section 712, arguing that Driver C’s injuries would have been avoided if they had worn a seat belt.

The jury agrees only that Driver C’s injuries would have been less severe if they had worn a seat belt, determining that Driver C was 25% at fault. Under California’s pure comparative fault rules, Driver C is eligible to collect 75% of the $100,000 in damages awarded in the case (or $75,000).

Other California Laws Related to Comparative Negligence

In this section, we’ll briefly mention a few other laws related to California’s pure comparative negligence rules.

Strict Liability

Some personal injury cases are governed by a principle known as strict liability. Under strict liability, a plaintiff does not need to prove that the defendant was negligent.

For example, California Civil Code Section 3342 says that dog owners are liable for injuries caused by their dogs in public places or on their own private property (as long as the victim is lawfully present). According to CACI Section 463, a plaintiff does not need to prove that the owner was negligent; they only need to prove:

  1. The defendant owned a dog.
  2. The dog bit the plaintiff while they were “in a public place or lawfully on private property.”
  3. The plaintiff was harmed.
  4. The defendant’s dog was “a substantial factor” in causing the plaintiff’s harm.

Some product liability personal injury cases are also governed by strict liability.

Gross Negligence

In California, gross negligence is negligence that is more severe than ordinary negligence. According to CACI Section 425: “Gross negligence is the lack of any care or an extreme departure from what a reasonably careful person would do in the same situation to prevent harm to oneself or to others. A person can be grossly negligent by acting or by failing to act.”

Suppose someone signs a liability waiver required by the owner of a climbing gym. If the person is injured while climbing, the owner is protected from liability by the waiver. However, if the person’s injury is due to gross negligence on the part of the owner, the injured person could still pursue a personal injury claim.

Negligence Per Se

In a previous section, we covered the factual elements a plaintiff needs to prove to show that a defendant was negligent. However, California Evidence Code Section 669 lays out rules for showing negligence per se. Essentially, negligence per se allows a plaintiff to prove that a defendant was negligent by showing that the defendant violated a law.

For example, suppose Driver E collides with Driver F, injuring Driver F. At the scene of the accident, the police determine that Driver E was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the accident, a violation of California law. Driver E is charged with driving under the influence and pleads guilty. Driver F can use negligence per se to establish Driver E’s liability in a personal injury lawsuit.

Experienced Bakersfield Personal Injury Attorneys

It’s clear that many complex details are involved in establishing negligence and assigning fault in California personal injury cases. Chain | Cohn | Clark’s team of personal injury and car accident lawyers have the expertise to guide you through any complications that arise with a personal injury claim. If you were injured in a car accident caused by another driver’s negligence, it’s a good idea to have a savvy car accident attorney on your side as you recover.

We’ve prepared an extensive list of frequently asked legal questions to provide you with any information you may need.

We also encourage you to reach out to Chain | Cohn | Clark today for a free, no-obligation review of your personal injury case.