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Pure Comparative Negligence in California – When the Victim is Blameworthy, Too

Not every personal injury lawsuit involves a faultless plaintiff-victim. Plaintiffs often contribute to their own injury-causing events, to varying degrees.

If a plaintiff is found to be partially at-fault, however, it does not signal the end of their case. Plaintiffs in California who are found to be partially at-fault may still recover on their legitimate claims, though the damages may be reduced accordingly.

To simplify, let’s consider two hypotheticals centered around motor vehicle accidents.

Situation #1: the plaintiff is stopped at a red light. They are suddenly rear-ended (and injured) by the defendant, who was speeding at the time.

Situation #2: the plaintiff gets into a motor vehicle accident. The defendant was speeding down the road and breaking various traffic rules, finally crashing into the side of the plaintiff’s car as the plaintiff was turning.

In Situation #1, it is unlikely that the plaintiff is even partially at-fault. They are legally stopped at a red light, and they are in a position where they likely could not have altered their behavior to avoid the accident. For the subsequent personal injury lawsuit, this is an ideal situation for the plaintiff.

In Situation #2, the plaintiff may be found partially at-fault, despite the fact that the defendant is the substantially responsible party. The court may find, perhaps, that the circumstances as they played out gave plaintiff ample time to consider the oncoming speeding vehicle, and to avoid the accident.

So, how does the law handle claims in which the plaintiff-victim is somewhat at-fault for their own injuries?
To better assess and distribute liability between the involved parties in a personal injury case, the state of California applies the pure comparative fault (or pure comparative negligence) rule.

Understanding Pure Comparative Fault

Under California law, the pure comparative fault rule is applied to all personal injury lawsuits. Pure comparative fault is a solution to assessing liability that operates on a sliding scale. Fault is allocated to each party based on the facts of the case, and this is represented by a percentage of the total fault for the accident.

In Situation # 2, above, the court might allocate 70 percent fault to the defendant, and 30 percent fault to the plaintiff.

Plaintiffs who are found to be partially at-fault are still allowed to sue defendants and recover damages – they are not prevented from doing so. Instead, the pure comparative fault rule simply reduces the plaintiff’s damages recovery based on their percentage fault.

Let’s consider Situation #2 again. Suppose that the total damages suffered by the plaintiff are $100,000. Remember, the plaintiff is found to 30 percent at-fault for the accident (while the single defendant is found to be 70 percent at-fault). If the plaintiff succeeds in their lawsuit, they are entitled to recover the defendant’s share of the damages, which is equal to 70 percent of the total. The plaintiff may recover $70,000.

It may not seem like it at first glance, but the pure comparative fault rule is actually plaintiff-friendly. Though the application of pure comparative fault may reduce your potential damages recovery, it protects your overall claim.

In some states, if the plaintiff is found to be partially at-fault for an accident, then they will be completely denied compensation. This rule is known as pure contributory negligence.

Numerous factors are considered when allocating fault to the involved parties, from legal violations, to the mental and physical state of each party at the time of the accident, and much more. The allocation of fault under the pure comparative fault rule is dependent not only on the actual facts, but on the ability of your personal injury attorney to argue those facts in your favor.

Joint and Several Liability – the Multiple Defendant Problem

Many personal injury cases involve more than one defendant. In a stairs slip and fall case, for example, the owner of the property and the contractor who actually built the stairs might both be liable, depending on the circumstances.

In the event that there is more than one defendant in your personal injury lawsuit, the pure comparative fault rule works the same. The court will proportionally allocate fault between all involved parties. Consider the following hypothetical.

Situation #3: you are the plaintiff-pedestrian in a personal injury case. There are two defendants, A and B. Defendant A was riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, against local regulations. This forced you to move out of the way quickly, tripping on the sidewalk and falling towards the roadway. Defendant B was a driver on the adjacent road. Defendant B was speeding through the area, defying local speed regulations. As a result of their speeding, Defendant B was unable to react in time to your fall, and collides with you, causing you injury.

In this Situation #3 hypothetical, both Defendants A and B are likely responsible for your injuries. Suppose that the court finds that Defendant A is 25 percent at-fault, and Defendant B is 75 percent at-fault. If the total damages recovery is $100,000, then you will be able to recover $25,000 from Defendant A, and $75,000 from Defendant B.

Of course, recovering from each defendant separately can present its own difficulties. In California, there is a limited form of joint and several liability in personal injury cases to make the process somewhat simpler for plaintiffs. Joint and several liability allows a plaintiff to recover all of their damages against just one of the at-fault plaintiffs. This may seem unfair for that defendant, but the defendant may recover against the other at-fault defendants for contribution.

For example, in Situation #3 above, the plaintiff might recover all $100,000 in damages against Defendant A, even though that defendant is only liable for $25,000. Defendant A must thereafter seek contribution ($75,000) from Defendant B.

In California, joint and several liability comes with a fairly significant limitation, however. Joint and several liability only applies to economic damages – it does not apply to non-economic damages. Economic damages account for lost wages, medical expenses, etc. Non-economic damages account for pain and suffering, and emotional damages as a result of the injury. As such, to recover fully for your non-economic damages, you will have to sue each defendant separately.