Understanding Liability Based Upon Fault


Proving Liability By Degree Of Fault Under Negligence Law

Evening vigil for dead accident victim
Roadside memorial for dead car crash victim

Previously we discussed proving liability in a typical personal injury case. Here we'll discuss specifically how to determine fault in a car accident using case law and legal principles specific to traffic accidents. Most injury victims filing lawsuits over car accident negligence are entitled to recover damages for injuries. So this includes the person called a plaintiff. But the plaintiff has the burden to show that the defendant or defendants– the driver that caused the accident was negligent.

Negligence could be established as a violation of the CVC– the California Vehicle Code. But it could be due to the other driver’s behavior falling below the reasonable standard of care. So the plaintiff must prove the other driver failed to use reasonable methods while operating the vehicle.

Examples include Whitford v. Pacific Gas & Elec. Co. (1955) 136 Cal.App.2d 697. Because of that case, the injured party must show the other driver’s negligence was the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries and damages.

What Is Legal Liability Under California Law?

To be found liable for a car wreck, slip, and fall, or any injury claim, the defendant or defendants must have been negligent. Since most of the cases we take involve car accidents, let's take a look at negligence surrounding the operation, maintenance, or lending of a motor vehicle as an example.

First of all, people must behave reasonably. So there is a social responsibility to act intelligently. Most important for liability to attach is that the violation of your rights caused the personal injury. And these must be damages that can become quantified.

Proximate Cause In Automobile Accidents Explained.

Case law holds that the accident must be the cause of your harm, as seen in Clarke v. Hoek (1985) 174 Cal.App.3d 208; Peter W. v. San Francisco Unified School District (1976) 60 Cal.App.3d 814.) Legal doctrines hold that the cause of the injuries must be the actual and “proximate cause.”

So your wreck must be the “legal cause” of your injuries. If something else injured you, then the defendant is found to be not at fault. Get it?

Furthermore, this section of tort law mandates that the plaintiff shows:

  1. Defendant’s negligence was a contributing factor that caused the plaintiff’s injuries and damages, as seen in Sagadin v. Ripper (1985) 175 Cal.App.3d 1141; Gordon v. Havasu Palms 93 C.A.4th 244, 112 C.R.2d 816 (2001);

To escape liability, the defendant must prove:

The incident was not a substantial factor, or foreseeable. Or the defendant must prove it was an independent intervening act that caused the plaintiff's injuries or death.

ExampleMitchell v. Gonzales (1985) 54 Cal.3d 1041; “. . . negligence must be a substantial factor” in causing the plaintiff’s injuries.

Pure Comparative Negligence FAQ.

What Is Pure Comparative Negligence?

Venice Beach police enforce laws

Can You Get Paid Damages Even if You're Also At Fault?

Yes, you can! Sometimes two or more acts or failures to act will combine in an accident. Unless the defendant had the last clear chance to avoid the wreck, some states would rule in the defendant's favor. Case dismissed. But in California, we use pure comparative negligence rules. So here, your award is simply reduced based upon your percentage of fault.

For example, A and B are in a car crash. A is following too closely, and rear ends B. But imagine B exits the car in traffic. And then a CHP cruiser runs B over. So B dies. The jury would award the survivors of B for the vehicle damage and whiplash. But B's estate would need to sue the CHP for the death.

However, getting out of a car in oncoming traffic would mean that B was partially at fault. Hence, under pure comparative negligence principles, the jury may find B 50% at the blame. So if the court awards B 1 million dollars against the CHP, the family would only get $500 thousand dollars. Pure comparative negligence under state law says the plaintiff’s negligence offsets the plaintiff's financial recovery amounts. The offset is based on the degree of negligence shown by the defendant.

This state has a pure form of comparative negligence – so even if the plaintiff has some fault, they can still recover for what they are not at fault. But your award gets reduced in proportion to degrees of fault, as seen in Li v. Yellow Cab Co. (1975) 13 Cal.3d 804.)

Here Are Some Scenarios That Include Negligence Under California's Vehicle Laws:

Below, find a list of some typical cases of driver negligence for which damages could be recovered.

  • Driving Too Fast – Driving way too fast can be negligent per se. (CVC Sec. 22350, et seq).; Hardin v. San Jose City Lines (1953) 41 Cal.2d 432). Sometimes it can be negligent to drive too slow. (Scott v Texaco, Inc. (1966) 239 Cal.App.2d 431.) Construction zone signs or hazard signs creating special speed zones remain disobeyed by many. And these are also a factor in proving negligence. (Wilding v. Norton (1957) 156 Cal.App.2d 374.)
  • Failing to Pay Attention – Vehicle operators shall keep a proper lookout for other vehicles and people when driving on the roads and must control the car at all times so as not to cause a wreck. (Leeper v Nelson (1956) 139 Cal.App.2d 65; Lutz v. Schendel (1959) 175 Cal.App.2d 140).
  • Failure To Yield Rights of Way – (CVC Sec. 21800, et seq.).
  • Left turns (CVC Sec. 21801) see also Sesler v. Ghumman (1990) 219 Cal.App.3d 218; Failure to Yield to Right Of Way Signs (CVC Sec. 21803); Illegal U-Turn (CVC Sec. 22105.) At an intersection (CVC Sec. 21800(a)-(e), see also Saterlee v. Orange Glenn School Dist. (1947) 29 Cal.2d 581).
  • Vehicle Defect – The owner or operator of a motor vehicle must inspect and maintain his or her car. (Yamaha Motor Corp. v. Paseman (1990) 219 Cal.App. 958; Dyer v. Superior Court (1997) 56 Cal.App.4th 61).
  • Intentional and Reckless Acts – A motor vehicle operator cannot willfully harm people or property with the vehicle as a weapon, or recklessly not do something he or she should have done! (Ingram v. Bob Jaffe Co. (1956) 139 Cal.App2d 193).
  • Cannot Drive the “Wrong Way” – (CVC Sec. 21650); See also Altomare v. Hunt (1950) 101 Cal.App.2d 10).
  • Illegal to Turn From A Wrong Lane – (CVC Sec. 22107).
  • Must Maintain and Properly Use Your Vehicle Brakes – (Veh.C. 26450, et seq.; Maloney v. Rath 69 Cal.2d 442 (1968) 71 Cal.Reports. 897, 445 P.2d 513).
  • Failure to Maintain or Turn on Your Headlights – (CVC Sec. 24400, et seq.; See also Matlock v. Farmers Mercantile Co. (1968) 258 Cal.App.2d 362).
  • Failure To Give Proper Turn and Other Vehicle Signals – (CVC Sec. 22107-22111; Pittman v. Boiven (1967) 249 Cal.App.2d 207).
  • Failure Maintain Safe Following Distance- (Veh.C. 21703 Pittman v. Boiven (1967) 249 Cal.App.2d 207).
  • Driving Under The Influence Of Alcohol or Drugs (“DUI”) (C.C. 3333.4(a)(1)).

Proving your car accident or other personal injury case is not as easy as it seems. You must determine the other driver failed to use reasonable attention/care while operating the vehicle. But some cases are more comfortable to prove than others. The above examples show you the many scenarios possible.

But having a great lawyer significantly increases the chances of a victory for you. Contact Ehline Law Firm Personal Injury Attorneys, APLC to learn more at (213) 596-9642.