How Car Accident Compensation Works in California
Put your trust in an attorney who knows the process
When you’re hurt in a car accident in California, the bills can start piling up right away. You need to repair your vehicle and get treatment for your injuries. You may not be able to work and need to replace your lost income. The crash itself may have been over in moments, but the long-term financial consequences of losing your health are just beginning.
California is a “fault” or “at-fault” state for car accidents, meaning the primary way victims get compensated for their injuries is by pursuing damages from the at-fault driver (or other responsible party, such as a vehicle manufacturer). In order to be made whole again, you need to understand the system and get a car accident attorney on your side who knows how to navigate it.
You need to take a few steps immediately after a car accident
The most important thing you need to do after a crash, after making sure the scene is safe, exchanging insurance information, and calling the police to investigate, is to seek prompt medical attention. Even if you feel okay, you need to be checked out by a doctor to ensure that you don’t have any hidden injuries or delayed symptoms. Getting medical attention also creates a record of your injury that will be critical as your claim moves forward.
You do need to notify your insurance company of the accident in a timely manner, but keep your comments brief, sticking to the facts of what happened. Any insurance company, even yours, is primarily interested in protecting their own bottom line, and you can’t afford to give them ammunition that can be used against you. That’s why it’s critical that you talk to a car accident lawyer who can deal with the insurance company on your behalf.
As you move through the compensation process, you need to keep going to your medical appointments, taking your medications as prescribed, and following your doctor’s instructions. For your case to be resolved, you need to reach maximum medical improvement (MMI), the point where your medical condition fully stabilizes in your doctor’s professional opinion, and further improvement is unlikely. Once you are at MMI, we can assess the full extent of your losses and understand how the injury will affect the rest of your life.
Required and optional car insurance in California
California law requires all vehicles registered in the state to carry a minimum of 15/30/5 coverage: $15,000 in liability insurance for injuries to a single person in a single accident, $30,000 total liability for injuries to multiple people in a single accident, and $5,000 for property damage in a single accident. You have the option of purchasing higher limits for an increased premium. Your liability insurance pays for injuries to other people hurt in an accident you cause; likewise, if you are hurt in an accident caused by someone else, their liability insurance covers your injuries.
In addition, there are several types of optional insurance you may have on your policy:
- Uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage (UM/UIM) protects you if you are hurt in an accident caused by an uninsured or underinsured motorist: someone who doesn’t have insurance, or someone who has some liability insurance but not enough to cover the full cost of the accident. Uninsured motorist protection also applies in hit-and-run accidents where the driver is not found. This coverage is optional, but the insurance company is required to offer it to you. We highly recommend carrying UM/UIM, since the minimum liability insurance policy in California is quite small and many accidents exceed those limits.
- Medical payments coverage (MedPay) pays for medical treatment for injuries you and your passengers sustain in an accident, regardless of fault, up to the policy limit. MedPay is rarely enough to pay for a serious injury, but it can help get your initial treatment paid for while we pursue compensation from the at-fault driver.
- Collision and comprehensive coverage pay for damage to your vehicle. Collision pays for damages sustained in a crash, regardless of fault, while comprehensive pays for non-crash-related damages, such as theft, vandalism or natural disaster. Collision and comprehensive are optional under California law, but if your vehicle is financed, the lienholder may require you to carry them.
Your insurance company may offer additional endorsements and riders on your policy, such as coverage for extra equipment installed in your vehicle or rental reimbursement if you need a rental car while your car is being repaired. It’s always worth talking to your insurance agent about your car insurance options to ensure your policy meets your needs.
California is a “pure” comparative negligence state
Under California law, when multiple parties are responsible for a car accident, they are each responsible for paying the damages (financial compensation) for the accident in proportion to their percentage of fault. For instance, if the total cost of an accident is $100,000, and fault for the accident is 40% on one motorist, 35% on a second motorist, and 25% on a vehicle manufacturer, those three parties would be responsible for $40,000, $35,000, and $25,000.
Every state uses some form of comparative negligence, but California is unusual in that there is no bar to recovery for an injured person who is more than 50% at fault for their own injury. Even if you are 99% at fault for your injuries, you can still take legal action to recover the 1% that was someone else’s fault – although practically speaking, it’s probably not worthwhile to do so. If you are found partially at fault for the accident, your award is simply reduced by your percentage of fault. For instance, if you are awarded $200,000 but found 30% at fault, your award would be reduced by 30% of $200,000, or $60,000, for a final award of $140,000.
A related legal concept is the idea of “joint and several” liability – that is, whether the injured person can go after one defendant (responsible party) for all the costs of the accident. California law allows joint and several liability for damages that can be tied to a specific calculation: medical expenses, lost earnings, vehicle repair costs, and so on. You can recover these types of damages from a single responsible party, even if they are only partially at fault, and then that defendant can turn around and pursue reimbursement from the other defendants. However, if you’re seeking non-economic damages like pain and suffering, you must sue each responsible party separately, and they are only responsible for their own share of the damages.
To get compensation, you need to prove fault
The primary source of compensation for a car accident in California is the at-fault driver’s insurance company. That means you need to either file a “third-party” claim with the insurance company or file a lawsuit against the at-fault driver (in which their interests will be represented by their insurance company). Either way, to get the insurance company to pay up, you must prove that their client was at fault and that you sustained real losses as a result.
To establish liability for car accidents, we talk to witnesses, review accident reports, gather physical evidence from the crash scene, and often hire experts, such as accident reconstruction specialists. When liability is disputed, every detail matters. Then, we build the case for the full amount of compensation you deserve for your losses, which may include:
- Medical expenses, both past and future
- Lost wages and lost future earnings
- Replacement services, such as childcare, cleaning, maintenance and yard work
- Property damage
- Pain and suffering, mental anguish and emotional distress
- Loss of care, companionship and quality of life
- Loss of consortium
Depending on the facts of the case and the insurance company’s attitude, it’s usually possible to recover compensation through a negotiated settlement. However, we prepare every case for trial, because that’s the only way to put pressure on the insurance company to pay fair value. When they see we’re prepared to take them to court, knowing our track record of results, they have every incentive to pay up. If they won’t, we’re ready to take them to trial and argue your case before a judge and jury.
Getting compensation for a car accident in California can be a lengthy process, but you don’t have to go through it alone. The key is to speak with an experienced attorney quickly, before evidence disappears and legal deadlines expire. Schedule your free consultation with a California car accident lawyer at the Swanson Law Group today.