Most people understand the basic elements of liability in a car accident. If you hit someone, you’re responsible; if they hit you, they’re responsible. However in real life situations, things are usually not so clear cut. Real accidents have multiple causes and sometime it seems that no one, or everyone, is to blame. Historically the law has struggled with this dynamic, usually falling on the side of caution by choosing to assign the blame for a confusing accident to one of the involved parties under the theory that if you were mostly at fault, you should pay.
However, over the years this method lead to some inequitable results and California law has evolved to better assign rights and responsibilities in complicated tort situations. The modern theory, broadly called comparative fault, attempts to assign financial responsibility for an accident proportionally with actual responsibility. Sometimes called contributory negligence, this theory seeks to determine to what degree each party contributed to the incident and allows everyone to collect against, or deduct against any other party that added something to the accident.
Comparative Fault In CaliforniaLet’s say, for example, that Driver A and Driver B are involved in an accident. At trial it is determined that Driver B was 20% responsible and Driver A was 80% responsible. Let’s also say that both drivers suffered total damages $100,000 each. Under California law, Driver A is entitled to collect $80,000 from driver B; representing Driver B’s proportional contribution to the accident. Likewise, Driver B is entitled to collect $20,000 from Driver A, representing Driver A’s contribution to the accident. With offsets, Driver A will wind up with $60,000 from the incident (after paying their share of Driver B’s damages). In other words, both drivers are allowed to collect from each other relative to how they contributed to the incident.
Joint and Several LiabilityA related concept addresses how multiple defendants, who each contributed to an accident, must share the financial responsibility of covering their victim’s damages. While this area of the law can sometimes get complex, the basics are as follows: Let’s say that Driver A is simultaneously hit by both Drivers B and C and incurs $100,000 in damages as a result. At trial, Driver B is determined to be 80% at fault and Driver C 20% at fault.
In theory, Driver C should only have to pay $20,000 of the damages; after all they only caused 20% of the accident. However, to spare Driver A, the victim, from the hassle of having to sue, and collect from, multiple difficult parties, the law demands that both Drivers B and C are liable to Driver A for the full amount of the damages until the entire $100,000 has been paid to Driver A (note: Driver A cannot collect more than $100,000 in total). Drivers B and C can later settle between themselves for any overpayment made by one of them, at which time they will be allowed to argue their relative contributions and responsibilities in a legal process called subrogation.