CALIFORNIA, AN AT-FAULT STATE FOR MOTOR VEHICLE ACCIDENTS

California is an “at-fault” state in regard to motor vehicle laws.  Therefore, before anyone can prevail in a lawsuit against another motorist, there must be a finding that the other party or parties were at fault.  Many times, automobile and motorcycle accidents are caused by a number of unexpected circumstances.  In such instances, there could be multiple people involved in the accident, and there could be multiple people who are partially to blame for the incident.  The following paragraphs will outline the issues that the courts in California consider, and how the courts make their determinations regarding who is at fault in an automobile accident.  

When an automobile or motorcycle accident occurs, it is usually a good idea to call the police immediately so that the officer can properly facilitate the exchange of information, identify certain witnesses and take their statements, and prepare a written report.   California law requires the driver of a vehicle to file a written report with the police (California Highway Patrol or the police department where the accident occurred) within twenty-four hours of the incident, if the incident resulted in an injury or death to a person.  If the police arrive at the accident scene, then a report will be prepared by the police officer and no additional report needs to be submitted.  See CA Vehicle Code § 20008

While it is usually a good idea to call the police immediately at the time of an accident, an opinion of the officer who was at the scene regarding who was at fault is not a determination that is considered by the courts.  Officers will often include their opinion of fault in the report that is drafted for the incident.  However, CA Vehicle Code § 20013 states that “no such accident report shall be used as evidence in any trial.” The fact that a police officer’s report does not determine who is at fault is a common misunderstanding amongst many individuals and even some attorneys.  However, it should be noted that even though an officer’s report is not considered evidence at a trial, it is still given significant consideration by insurance companies when they are evaluating the claim which an individual has made. 

If fault is not determined by the reporting officer, then “who” you may ask determines which party is at fault in an accident?  In a lawsuit involving an automobile or a motorcycle, fault is determined solely by the trier of fact in the case.  That is, fault can only be decided by the jury, the judge, or by an arbitrator in some cases.  These individuals are often referred to as the “trier of fact.”  Fault is not decided by an expert witness or, as previously mentioned, by the officer that responded to the scene.  The issue of whether the case is one that is decided by a jury, a judge, or an arbitrator varies on a case-by-case basis, but the general rule is that everyone has a right to a trial by jury. 

A NEGLIGENCE STANDARD

During a trial, the trier of fact is faced with many issues.  In making their determination of fault, the judge or the jury will consider whether there has been a violation of a law (e.g. running a red light, making an illegal turn, etc). If one driver was in violation of a motorist law, it will weigh heavily on the determination.  On the other hand, if no laws were broken, or if multiple people were at fault, the judge or jury will determine who was negligent.  For more information on the law of negligence, please see the article “Who is Negligent?” which can be found here.  In the simplest terms, we as drivers, each have a duty to drive with reasonable prudence and make sure that other drivers are safe.   If we fail to drive with reasonable prudence, then we are negligent.  

If multiple parties were negligent, then the judge or the jury will determine the degree to which each party was negligent.  California has adopted the legal theory of comparative negligence which allows for a defendant to reduce the amount of “general damages” that a plaintiff can recover by the percentage that the plaintiff was at fault.  However, in California a party who is found to be at fault, no matter how small the percentage of fault, is liable to victim for all of their “special damages.”  For more information on the different types of damages, please see the article entitled “How to Determine the Value of your Injury Case.”  The article can be found here.  For purposes of this article, it is important to understand that it is the trier of fact who makes the determination as to the degrees of negligence.  California does have a unique law that prohibits an individual who is not insured from recovering general damages such as pain and suffering or emotional distress, regardless of who is found to be at fault for the accident. The uninsured individual can still make a claim based on special damages such as property damages, lost wages (past and future), and medical expenses. 

EVIDENCE

In making their determination, the judge or the jury will consider the facts of the case, and all of the evidence which has been presented to them.  The evidence which is presented at trial is a significant consideration when determining fault.  Some of the evidence which is often submitted by a party in an accident case includes but is not limited to:

  • Witness Statements and Testimony – statements of witnesses are often taken by police officers and private investigators. Even though police reports are not admissible to determine fault, they can sometimes include statements from witnesses which can be admitted.
  • Physical evidence – this can include damage to vehicles, as well as tire marks on the road and the location of debris from the accident
  • Expert Testimony – like police officers, experts cannot give opinions as to fault, but they can give opinions as to the incidents which caused the accident or injury
  • Testimony of the Parties – a non-biased, third-party witness who can describe the events surrounding the accident is always preferred, but sometimes the only witnesses were the parties themselves.

In addition to the evidence above, in many cases it is prudent to hire a private investigator.  All cases which involve a serious injury demand a rigorous investigation as quickly as possible after an accident.  The timeliness of an investigation could make the difference for you in proving your case.  An investigation that commences too long after an accident could result in evidence disappearing, or missed opportunities to identify and interview witnesses.  Private investigators can also verify the accuracy of police reports.  Police officers sometimes make mistakes in their reports.  Additionally, and unfortunately, police officers occasionally cut corners in their reports in order to save time.  Identifying and correcting an inaccuracy of an officer’s report, if one exists, could be a crucial step to achieving the justice that you deserve. 

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, the “at-fault” laws for motorists in California require one to prove that another party was at fault before they can recover any damages which stem from an automobile or motorcycle accident.  Making the required proofs in a court of law is often necessary for you to get the compensation that you deserve.  The litigation process is contentious and can be quite complex.  The attorneys at Hemming & Associates, P.C. are highly skilled and qualified to assist you in achieving the best possible results for your injury claims.  Our attorneys will fight tirelessly for you, our valued client, and give you the personal representation that you deserve.  Call us today!

Authored by Charles G. Hemming III

CA Bar #330660, TX Bar #24122081, AK Bar #2006058

Mr. Hemming’s practice is limited to the jurisdictions of California, Texas, and Alaska.

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