Pure Comparative Negligence Insurance Claims in California

When you have been involved in a California motor vehicle accident, it is important to understand your legal rights. In auto accidents involving multiple defendants or pile-up crashes, it can be difficult to apportion fault amongst defendants and arrive at an accurate award of damages. A pure comparative negligence system of recovery attempts to resolve issues of determining recovery when multiple defendants are involved.

California currently follows a system of pure comparative negligence to award damages to victims in auto accidents and other tort cases. Comparative negligence is a system used to determine the relative liability of defendants and damages available to accident victims. In a pure comparative negligence jurisdiction, each defendant is only liable for his or her percentage of fault. A plaintiff is still able to recover damages in a pure comparative negligence jurisdiction, even if he or she was at fault in contributing to the accident. The ultimate award of damages for a plaintiff will be reduced by his or her own percentage of fault.

Perhaps you have missed work or suffered medical expenses as a result of your auto accident and want to understand the forms of monetary recovery available to you. California auto accident lawyers are here to help you understand your legal rights. Contact an auto accident attorney at the Arnold Law Firm to learn more about your legal rights and receive a free case evaluation.

Back to top.

Overview of Comparative Fault, Contributory Negligence and Joint and Several Liability

Jurisdictions that have adopted comparative fault, contributory negligence or joint and several liability may vary greatly in the apportionment of damages for plaintiffs. Victims involved in auto accidents should understand the system of recovery used in their jurisdiction, because a particular system may have a significant impact on their award.

  • Comparative fault is a system of recovery in which the defendant is responsible for damages based on the percentage of fault attributable to him or her. Comparative negligence jurisdictions are further divided into jurisdictions that follow pure comparative negligence or modified comparative negligence.
  • Contributory negligence refers to a system that completely bars a negligent plaintiff from recovery. Even if a plaintiff is 1 percent at fault in an accident, that plaintiff will be unable to receive any compensation. The rule is renowned for its harsh effect on the recovery of plaintiffs. The exception to this rule is the Last Clear Chance Rule, in which negligent plaintiffs are still able to recover compensation if they can show that a defendant had the last clear chance to avoid an injury. Contributory negligence is a rule followed by the minority of states in the U.S.
  • Joint and several liability is a rule that enables a plaintiff to recover the entire award of damages from any liable defendant. The defendants then must sue one another for contribution. California has modified its application of joint and several liability and bars this rule in cases involving the recovery of non-economic damages. California still applies joint and several liability for cases involving medical expenses, loss of earnings, burial costs, property losses, costs of repair and other damages with a specific calculation.

Back to top.

How Does Comparative Negligence Work?

There are currently two types of comparative negligence systems, and they are the pure comparative negligence and modified comparative negligence systems. Pure comparative negligence systems compensate plaintiffs for damages based on each party’s percentage of fault. Modified comparative negligence systems compensate plaintiffs only if a plaintiffs own fault does not exceed a certain percentage. In both pure comparative negligence and modified comparative negligence jurisdictions, a judge or jury will be responsible for determining the percentage of fault attributable to each party involved in the personal injury case.

Back to top.

Is California a Comparative or Contributory Negligence State?

California uses a pure comparative negligence system to determine the ultimate monetary compensation awarded to plaintiffs. California’s judicial system began following pure comparative negligence in 1975, with its decision in Li v. Yellow Cab Co., 13 Cal. 3d 804 (1975). In that case, a plaintiff had made a left turn over three lanes of traffic. At the same time, the defendants speeding vehicle struck the plaintiffs car. The California Supreme Court was faced with the decision of whether to continue to apply the common law rule of contributory negligence or to begin implementing comparative negligence in tort cases. Ultimately, the court held that comparative negligence was a preferable rule to the all-or-nothing contributory negligence rule.

The California judiciary continued to elaborate on its interpretation of comparative negligence in cases like American Motorcycle Assn. v. Superior Court (1978). In that case, the court addressed the need for a fair way of apportioning liability in cases involving multiple tortfeasors and adopted a rule of pure comparative negligence. American Motorcycle Assn. v. Superior Court (1978) dealt with a case in which a boy alleged he was injured in a cross-country race due to the negligent construction of the course, while the defendant counter-claimed that the boys parents were also negligent in consenting to his participation in the race. The court concluded that Lis rationale continued to apply and that California’s tort system should apportion liability amongst multiple defendants.

Today, pure comparative negligence may function as a defense for a defendant involved in an auto accident with multiple defendants. The California judicial system allows a defendant to claim comparative negligence as a defense to reduce his or her own fault in a case. For example, a defendant who is only 20 percent at fault for contributing to a car accident will only be 20 percent liable for the ultimate award that a plaintiff receives. On the other hand, a defendant who is 95 percent at fault must cover 95 percent of the damages that a plaintiff receives. If the court finds that a plaintiff has suffered $100,000 in damages, then a defendant who is 95 percent at fault must pay $95,000 to that plaintiff. The judge or jury is tasked with determining the percentage of liability that is allocated to each defendant, as well as the amount of damages a plaintiff is entitled to receive.

The total damages award is made up of economic, non-economic and punitive damages. Economic damages are those damages that are easily calculated, which include lost wages and medical expenses. The court has greater discretion in calculating the total non-economic damages that a plaintiff may receive, which include pain and suffering and loss of consortium. Loss of consortium is also known as loss of enjoyment of life. The California Civil Code § 3294 defines punitive damages as those that result from malicious, fraudulent or oppressive behavior attributable to the defendant. A plaintiff must prove punitive damages by clear and convincing evidence.

Back to top.

Pure Comparative Negligence Jurisdictions

In pure comparative negligence jurisdictions, plaintiffs may still recover damages even if they are partially at fault in a negligence case. This rule also benefits plaintiffs involved in negligence actions in which their percentage of fault exceeds a defendants percentage of fault. For example, Rob and Sarah are involved in a car crash. In that case, the jury decides that Rob (the plaintiff) is 51 percent at fault for causing his own injuries, while Sarah (the defendant) is 49 percent at fault. Even though Robs percentage of fault outweighs Sarah’s fault, he can still recover compensation if the jury returns a verdict in his favor.

In a different example, perhaps the jury determines that Rob (the plaintiff) is 99 percent at fault for causing his own injuries, while Sarah (the defendant) is only 1 percent at fault. In this example, it would still be possible for Rob to recover 1 percent of the ultimate damages award from Sarah. His ultimate award would be reduced by 99 percent of the damages, but he would still be able to recover 1 percent of the award. Pure comparative negligence jurisdictions empower plaintiffs in allowing them to recover an award even in cases when their own negligence is greater than a defendants negligence.

Currently, there are 13 states that use a pure comparative negligence system of recovery. They are listed as follows:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Florida
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota
  • Washington

Back to top.

Modified Comparative Negligence Jurisdictions

In modified comparative negligence jurisdictions, plaintiffs face greater restrictions in obtaining compensation depending on their percentage of fault. While plaintiffs can still recover damages even if they are 99 percent at fault in pure comparative negligence states, this is not the case with modified comparative negligence states. Modified comparative negligence jurisdictions are divided according to those that abide by the 50 percent rule and those that abide by the 51 percent rule.

Back to top.

List of States Following the 50 Percent Rule

The 50 percent rule allows a plaintiff to recover damages only if he or she is 49 percent at fault or less. Stated in another way, a plaintiff is completely barred from recovery if he or she is 50 percent at fault or more. In a hypothetical example, a plaintiff found to be 48 percent at fault may still recover damages in this jurisdiction. However, that same plaintiff may not recover damages if he or she is 50 percent at fault. The following 12 states adhere to the 50 percent rule:

  • Arkansas
  • Colorado
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Kansas
  • Maine
  • Nebraska
  • North Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • Tennessee
  • Utah
  • West Virginia

Back to top.

List of States Following the 51 Percent Rule

The 51 percent rule states that an accident victim may only recover damages if his or her percentage of fault does not reach 51 percent. In other words, a plaintiff must be found to be 50 percent at fault or less in order to recover damages under this rule. A plaintiffs compensation will also be reduced based on his or her percentage of fault. The following 21 states apply the 51 percent rule:

  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Vermont
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

Back to top.

Types of Cases Involving Pure Comparative Negligence

Our personal injury lawyers handle a variety of cases that involve pure comparative negligence. Here are some types of cases our attorneys handle and that may involve pure comparative negligence:

  • Car Accidents
  • Truck Accidents
  • Motorcycle Accidents
  • Boating Accidents
  • Other Vehicular Accidents
  • Personal Injury Accidents

In auto accidents involving pure comparative negligence, there are also certain cases in which a plaintiffs recovery may be reduced by his or her own negligence. According to the California Office of Traffic Safety, distracted driving is involved in 80 percent of vehicle accidents. Some of the behaviors that may contribute to a plaintiffs percentage of fault in auto accidents may include:

  • Texting while driving
  • Talking on a cell phone
  • Listening to loud music
  • Applying cosmetics
  • Consuming food or drinks
  • Fatigue
  • Reading maps or other materials

Even if you were an accident victim and engaged in one of these distracted driving behaviors, you still may be able to obtain recovery. Contact one of our California auto accident lawyers to learn more about pure comparative negligence laws and how they may impact your case.

Back to top.

Damages and Recovery for Plaintiffs in Pure Comparative Negligence Cases

Even if a plaintiff has contributed fault to his or her own injuries, there are various forms of recovery that may still be available. Pure comparative negligence jurisdictions like California still allow a plaintiff to obtain compensation when he or she has been negligent in an accident. The following types of damages may be available to plaintiffs in pure comparative negligence jurisdictions:

  • Lost Wages (past, present and future)
  • Medical Expenses
  • Pain and Suffering
  • Loss of Consortium
  • Property Damages
  • Punitive Damages

Back to top.

Comparative vs. Contributory Negligence

Comparative negligence enables otherwise negligent plaintiffs to continue to recover for their injuries despite this negligence. On the other hand, contributory negligence acts as a total bar to recovery for negligent plaintiffs. While a defendant may raise either rule as a defense, the only effect of comparative negligence is to reduce the plaintiffs ultimate recovery by his or her own negligence. In contributory negligence cases, a defendant is totally relieved from liability due to a plaintiffs contributory negligence.

In considering comparative negligence and contributory negligence, it is useful to analyze the impact of each rule in the context of a case involving a plaintiff who has contributed to her own fault. For example, perhaps there is a case involving a defendant who was speeding on the road and failed to signal a lane change. The jury finds the defendant 80 percent at fault, while it finds a plaintiff 20 percent at fault for talking on a cell phone at the time of the accident. If the defendant raises comparative negligence as a defense, then he will be required to pay for 80 percent of the plaintiffs award. If the defendant raises contributory negligence as a defense, then the plaintiff will not be able to recover anything for her damages.

California auto accident lawyers can help you if you have been involved in an accident that may involve principles of pure comparative negligence. Feel free to call one of our lawyers for an initial consultation of your auto accident case.

Back to top.

Negligence Systems across the U.S.

The following table summarizes pure comparative negligence and modified comparative negligence jurisdictions across the U.S.:

Pure Comparative Negligence50 Percent Rule51 Percent Rule
MissouriNorth DakotaMichigan
New MexicoOklahomaMinnesota
New YorkTennesseeMontana
Rhode IslandUtahNevada
South DakotaWest VirginiaNew Hampshire
WashingtonNew Jersey
South Carolina

Need Help? Contact Our Skilled Lawyers Today

Sacramento Lawyer Clay ArnoldIf you have questions about a pure comparative negligence claim, don’t delay in speaking with one of our auto accident lawyers to discuss your legal options. You may be eligible to recover compensation for lost wages, medical expenses, pain and suffering, loss of consortium, and property damage.

We are committed to resolving your legal issues in a timely manner and have successfully litigated many car, motorcycle and truck accident cases in the Sacramento area.

To contact us today, call our team at (916) 777-7777. There are no upfront costs and your initial case review is free.