In many traffic accidents there is no question as to who was responsible. As examples, the intoxicated driver who crosses into the oncoming traffic lane or the driver who is distracted while talking on her smartphone and runs a traffic light. But there are more than a few accidents in which both drivers were negligent and both thus contributed, to some extent, to an accident.

Rather than assign full responsibility to the driver who was “more at fault” than the other driver, the courts of each state have adopted some form of the legal concept known as comparative negligence that is applied when there is evidence that both drivers were partially responsible for an accident. Since each state is free to apply their interpretation of any given legal doctrine, concept, or principle, there will be state-to-state variations in how the issue of comparative negligence is handled by their respective courts. In this article, we will examine how California courts apply this principle in accident cases.

The California courts have adopted an interpretation of comparative negligence known as “pure comparative negligence” that is applied when there is evidence that both parties contributed, in some way, to an accident. The central principle of pure comparative negligence states that an injured party is entitled to collect some damages following an accident regardless of their degree (“per cent”) of contribution to that accident, even if they are later found to have been 99% responsible! However, any damages awarded will be reduced by the percentage of their responsibility to the accident. This is best understood by way of an example:

Drivers “A” and “B” have been involved in an accident where both are injured. The accident report indicates that Driver A was making an illegal left turn when he was struck by Driver B. Other drivers who witnessed the accident, and stopped to make a statement to the investigating officers, also report that Driver B was talking, in what appeared to be a quite emotional state, on her cellphone. Driver B later files a lawsuit seeking damages of $1 million.

At the lawsuit trial the jury determines that 1) Driver A was the direct cause of the accident because of his illegal left turn but, 2) Driver B could have avoided the accident had she not been distracted by her cellphone, therefore 3) Driver B’s per cent contribution to the accident was 70% and Driver A’s contribution was 30%.

Under California’s pure contributory negligence standard, if the jury awarded $100,000 in damages to Driver B, the court would then reduce the jury’s award by Driver B’s per cent of contribution to the accident (70%) and Driver B would collect only $30,000 ($100,000×30% of Driver A’s responsibility for the accident = $30,000).

The degree of contribution of each party to an accident is often not as “cut and dried” as it might appear. It must be remembered that “fault” is assigned by a jury and is based on that jury’s interpretation of the facts as presented in court. As may be imagined, one set of facts can lead to several different conclusions.

As we have seen, assigning the degree of one party’s contribution to an accident can be quite a complicated task. For this reason, anyone who has been injured in an auto accident is strongly advised to retain the services of a personal injury attorney to advise the accident victim on the best course of action to insure that the victim receives the amount of compensation to which they are legally entitled for their injuries.

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