California Shared Liability: When Multiple Parties Must Compensate an Accident Victim
In 2009, David Evans was riding his motorcycle along Highway 138 when another driver turned left in front of him, causing a serious accident. As a result of the accident, Evans suffered brain and spinal cord injuries that have necessitated he receive 24-hour medical care. Evans and his wife filed a lawsuit against the driver of the vehicle that turned left in front of him as well as against Caltrans. Caltrans was named as a defendant because an allegedly dangerous road design was a contributing factor in the accident. The roads are not lined up perpendicular, forcing drivers moving west to make a sharp left turn.
“Under California law, when multiple parties cause an accident resulting in injury, they will share the responsibility of compensating the victim,” explained California personal injury lawyer James Ballidis.
Upon reviewing the case, a jury awarded Evans $31.5 million to cover his medical costs and other losses. The jury determined that Caltrans was 15 percent responsible for causing the accident and would thus be obligated to pay 15 percent of the damages. The driver who was operating the vehicle that turned left was 85 percent responsible for the accident and would be required to pay the remaining damages.
California Rules on Shared Liability
California has established rules for situations where two or more parties share liability for causing an injury or damage. These laws are identified in California Civil Code section 1430-1432. The laws establish three different types of shared liability: joint liability, several liabilities and joint and several liability.
As explained in section 1431.1, the provisions in this section of the Civil Code were passed in order to correct inequalities that exist under a system that simply imposed joint and several liability. Joint and several liability means that each party who is named partially responsible for causing harm can be responsible for the entire damages that have occurred. In other words, if a party was only 15 percent at fault for the accident, he or she could be forced to pay 100 percent of the damages if the other parties who were at fault had insufficient funds to pay for their portion of the compensation due.
Joint and several liability was thus also referred to as the “deep pocket,” rule because the party with more money ended up paying for the full costs of shared damages. In many cases, this resulted in the government or private defendant bearing the costs of accidents and resulting damage settlements, even when their share of the fault was small, because they were perceived to have more funds to cover the costs.
To correct this issue, section 1431.2 establishes “several liability” for non-economic damages in personal injury actions. Under this rule, “in any action for personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death, based on the principles of comparative fault, the liability of each defendant for non-economic damages shall be several only and shall not be joint. Each defendant shall be liable only for the amount of non-economic damages allocated to that defendant in direct proportion to that defendant's percentage of fault, and a separate judgment shall be rendered against that defendant for that amount.”
It is important to be aware that not only can defendant’s share liability under California’s comparative fault rules, but a plaintiff may also recover partial damages from a defendant even if he or she bears some responsibility for causing his or her own injuries. In fact, California has a pure comparative fault system in place, which means that even a plaintiff who is more than 50 percent responsible for injuring him or herself can still recover compensation for the portion of responsibility that the other party bears.
With these rules on shared liability, California ensures that the parties most responsible for injuries are the ones who are obligated to pay for the costs of those losses.
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