What Is Comparative Negligence in Personal Injury Cases?

How civil judges and juries determine whether and how much an injured person should be compensated varies from state to state. A personal injury lawsuit will have drastically different results depending on whether the state follows comparative or contributory negligence laws.

California was once a contributory negligence state to determine how to award damages in a personal injury case. In 1975, the California Supreme Court changed the standard to comparative negligence, a result of the court case Li v. Yellow Cab Co.

California’s Switch to Comparative Negligence

The case of a particular traffic accident, Li v Yellow Cab Co., compelled the state to change how it awarded injury judgments.

The plaintiff (Li) was trying to cross three lanes of oncoming traffic to enter a service station. The driver of a Yellow Cab (defendant) was speeding and ran a yellow light before hitting Li’s car. In the civil trial, both the plaintiff and defendant were found to be driving negligently. The state’s adherence to pure contributory negligence (“all or nothing”) prevented Li from receiving any compensation. Li appealed.

The California Supreme Court reversed the judgment, ruling that comparative negligence should be adopted in the state. Even though the plaintiff shared some responsibility, the defendant could be held liable for their portion. Damages should be awarded but diminished in relation to the plaintiff’s percentage of negligence.

Comparative Fault Better Protects the Injured

States that follow comparative fault provide the possibility of compensation, even if the plaintiff is partially responsible for the accident that caused their injuries.

California follows pure comparative negligence. This means an injured party can potentially be awarded damages, even if they are 99% at fault. The plaintiff can recover damages from the defendant minus their percentage of responsibility. If total damages equal $100,000, someone who is 99% responsible could theoretically still collect $1,000.

The states that join California in following pure comparative fault are as follows:

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

There are also states that follow modified comparative negligence. These states allow injured plaintiffs to recover damages but only if their responsibility falls under a certain threshold.

Twelve states allow an injured person to receive compensation from a civil suit if they are less than 50% responsible. The 21 states using the 51% threshold allow the person to potentially collect if they are no more than 50% responsible.

Only five U.S. jurisdictions still follow contributory negligence:

  • North Carolina
  • Alabama
  • Maryland
  • Virginia
  • District of Columbia

Under contributory negligence, damages are prohibited even if the hurt party is only 1% responsible for what occurred.

South Dakota is the only state that uses the “slight/gross” negligence rule. The accountability of the defendant and plaintiff is only considered when the plaintiff’s negligence is slight while the defendant’s negligence is gross. The plaintiff is prohibited from recovering damages if their fault is more than slight.

Time Limits to File Injury Lawsuits in California

The Golden State requires that personal injury lawsuits be filed within two years from the date of injury or one year from the date the injury was discovered. Requirements are slightly different if a government agency is a defendant.

The two-year timeframe is applicable in these and other cases:

  • Car Accidents
  • Motorcycle Accidents
  • Pedestrian Accidents
  • Truck Accidents
  • Dog Bites

Injured parties can seek compensatory (economic and non-economic) and punitive damages.

Economic damages include compensation for medical bills, lost wages, future wages, prescriptions, current and future rehabilitation, and other costs. Non-economic damages include pain and suffering, permanent disabilities, loss of consortium, and diminished quality of life. Punitive damages are meant to punish the responsible party. These damages are only awarded when clear and convincing evidence shows that the defendant is guilty of fraud, oppression, or malice.

Understand Your California Personal Injury Rights

Accidents can impact victims physically, financially, and emotionally. At Palmer Rodak & Associates, we want to hold responsible parties accountable for their negligence. If you have been injured because of someone else’s carelessness, we want to help.

Our goal is to obtain maximum compensation for all the costs – economic and personal – that you have paid. We also look beyond the initial impacts and fight for any future charges or losses related to your injuries.

Discuss your personal injury case with one of our experienced lawyers in a free consultation. Contact our law firm online or by calling (760) 573-2223.