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How do California civil courts assess fault after car accidents?

After a serious automobile accident in California, you may be considering whether or not to pursue civil damages. Whether you were partially at fault for the accident or completely innocent, the compensation you receive will depend on the total damages from the crash and the degree of negligence of any involved parties. 

As FindLaw explains, unlike some other states, you may remain eligible for compensation after an accident in California even if you were partially at fault. 

California uses a pure comparative negligence system

Each state has adopted a model for addressing fault after a car accident or other injury. States generally adopt one of three negligence doctrines: contributory negligence, modified comparative negligence or pure comparative negligence. Under contributory negligence, an injured party may not collect any damages if a court determines that he or she was even 1% at fault for the incident in question. 

Under comparative negligence, parties may remain eligible for damages for injuries where they were partially at fault. Their compensation would diminish by the percentage a court holds them responsible. For example, if a court assesses $50,000 in total damages for your injury and determines that you were 25% at fault, you would still be able to collect $37,500 — or 75% of the total damages. 

Modified comparative negligence requires that the party’s fault must be less than 50% of the total negligence to remain eligible; pure comparative negligence allows the plaintiff to collect damages no matter their degree of fault, as long as the other party also exhibited any negligence resulting in injury. So even if you were 99% at fault for an accident, you may still be able to collect 1% of the damages if a court finds it warranted. This is the system California uses. 

Courts award damages based on negligence

The comparative negligence system is particularly helpful for judges when hearing cases with multiple defendants. The judge would allocate liability between all involved parties and then assess the total amount of damages to divide. 

In California, these damages can include economic damages like vehicle repair, doctors’ bills and missed wages, but they can also include compensation for pain and suffering and even punitive damages if the other party’s negligence was particularly egregious. 

Judges may have a more difficult time assessing noneconomic damages, so state law gives them a large degree of discretion when calculating compensation for pain and suffering.