Understanding California's Comparative Negligence Law

Published on 10/17/2023 by Monica Burneikis

Clients are often shocked to learn they may be legally accountable for damages related to an accident or event that seemed entirely the fault of another. That’s because California’s Comparative Negligence Law looks to establish fault equitably.

For example, let’s say you have friends over for dinner. One of them arrives under the influence of alcohol and trips and falls on your walkway. If they choose to sue, you may find that any proof of inadequate lighting, a gap, or a rise in the walkway means you are X% at fault; therefore, the court will make you (or your homeowner’s insurance carrier) pay for X% of the damages. 

California’s Comparative Negligence Laws: The Basics

This is very different from many other states, where the government stipulates that nobody is held accountable for negligence if they share less than 50% of the responsibility for the injury or accident. In the above example, we understand that an inebriated friend is almost entirely at fault for their fall, yet you might have to compensate them anyway. 

However, it is often challenging to decipher where the boundaries around responsibility or negligence begin and end. Only the court has the final say in the end, and that’s why a personal injury lawyer is your greatest ally - regardless of whether you’re a plaintiff or a defendant.

Partial Fault Means Partial Accountability

Comparative negligence laws mean any partial fault equals partial accountability, which is reflected in how courts and insurance companies handle comparative negligence cases.

Prior to 1975, when California shifted to the comparative negligence format, we had a contributory negligence law. This means that if the victim was in any way responsible for what happened - for example, a jaywalker being hit by a car (take note: laws have changed here, too, and jaywalking is no longer illegal in the state of CA), or a person slipping and falling on a well-marked “wet floor” they could not pursue damages. 

Once the law changed, there was exponential growth in the personal injury law niche. Today, legal and insurance professionals recommend scheduling a consultation with a personal injury lawyer whenever you’re injured or suffer any type of harm - regardless of whether the outcome was due to your negligence.

Examples of Partial Fault

In a state with comparative negligence laws, damages are awarded based on a percentage of fault. If the court finds you are 1% responsible and the plaintiff was 99% responsible for what happened, you may still be ordered to cover that 1%. That may not sound like much, but that 1% can be substantial if the accident resulted in serious injuries, long hospital stays, lost wages, etc. 

For example, the Lawsuit Information Center writes, “One study found that the average money damage award for personal injury trials in California is $1,814,094; if you were found 1% responsible, you’d still owe a notable $18,140.94. That’s not a dollar amount most working households can easily absorb.

Some of the most common personal injury cases resulting in partial fault settlements include:

  • Auto accidents
  • Slip and fall accidents
  • Work-related injuries
  • Malpractice cases
  • Assault
  • Dog bites
  • Product liability
  • Wrongful death

And don’t forget, serious injuries - even if a person was partially negligent - can lead to life-long side effects, including mental health or psychological effects, the inability to do the same job, or chronic pain and suffering. 

What to do if you were primarily at fault for an accident/injury

Even if you were recently involved in an accident or suffered an injury due to your own negligence, it is still worth consulting with a personal injury attorney. First consultations are always free and we can help you determine whether it’s worth pursuing.

In most cases, an insurance company - whether it is auto insurance, homeowner’s insurance, or a business’s liability insurance - is also involved. This means you are likely to get a settlement that reflects the other party’s or parties’ percentage of fault. After two or three free consults, you’ll know whether or not it’s worth pursuing while also having a good feel for which law practice you trust represents you.

What to do if you feel you’re not responsible for an accident or injury

On the flip side, we share the same sentiment. In most cases, your insurance carrier will go to bat for you to minimize the damages they must pay out. That said, legal expertise is always an advantage.

It costs you nothing to consult with a personal injury lawyer using their free initial consultations. They may have additional information or questions that support your case and minimize any damages you may be responsible for. This is also a reason why paying a little bit more in monthly premium prices is well worth the expanded coverage you receive. If the amount you’re responsible for exceeds the insurance coverage, you’ll have to pay those expenses out of pocket - even if you shared only a minimum of responsibility. 

Let Burneikis Law Support Your Comparative Negligence Law Suit

Regardless of which side of California’s comparative negligence law you’re on, the support of an experienced personal injury lawyer can play a significant role in the outcome of your case. 

Schedule your free legal consultation with Burneikis Law Firm. We can help you learn more about what percentage of responsibility you may carry and how that can affect the final verdict. 

Monica Burneikis - Oakland Personal Injury Attorney
Monica Burneikis has been an accident and personal injury lawyer for over 15 years. She knows what it takes to fight with insurance companies in order to obtain maximum compensation for injury victims and their families.
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