Auto accidents are a very common occurrence in California, which makes familiarity with California car accident compensation laws an unfortunate necessity for many drivers. This article discusses what you need to know about California car accidents, including insurance coverage, what to do after an accident, and how to get appropriate compensation for your injuries and losses.
Insurance Coverage in California
Let's start with car insurance and the insurance code. Auto insurance is required on all vehicles parked or operated on California roads. You must carry proof of insurance in your motor vehicle at all times and must provide it with your contact information if requested by law enforcement or if you are in an accident. Some people keep it with their driver's license. Others keep it in their car.
California has minimum liability insurance requirements. Liability insurance compensates a person other than the insurance policyholder for personal injury or property damage. You must obtain the following coverage from your insurance company:
- $15,000 for bodily injury or death to one person
- $30,000 for bodily injury or death to more than one person
- $5,000 for damage to property
You are not required in the State of California to carry uninsured motorist/underinsured motorist coverage. That is coverage available to protect you when there is another at-fault driver who causes a car accident.
As an alternative to insurance, you can make an arrangement with the California Department of Motor Vehicles. You can satisfy the insurance requirement by depositing $35,000 with the DMV.
What Should You Do After an Accident?
Here is a list of what to do if you are in an accident:
- Don't leave the scene; leaving the scene of the accident, even if it's minor, could be considered an illegal hit-and-run
- Get to safety out of traffic and check everyone for injuries (and consider providing first aid to any car accident victims)
- Call the California highway patrol or the police department for help and medical assistance; you will want to make sure you get a copy of the police report or accident report
- Collect contact information and driver's insurance information from the people who were driving any vehicles involved in the accident
- Take pictures of the scene and get the contact information of any witnesses; also, check with nearby businesses or homeowners for a copy of their security camera footage, if applicable
- Call your insurance adjuster and notify them of a possible car accident claim
- Get checked out by a doctor
You can and should consider doing all of this before you think about bringing a personal injury lawsuit.
'At Fault' and 'Pure Comparative Negligence' Rules Apply
California, like many other states, has an "at fault" (also referred to as a "tort") system for insurance claims — a driver seeking compensation must show wrongful conduct on the part of the other driver if he wants his claim to be successful.
A related point, should your case go beyond an insurance claim to full legal proceedings, is that California is a "pure comparative negligence" jurisdiction. If your case goes to trial, the judge or jury will calculate the percentages of fault for each driver and reduce each driver's liability accordingly. For example, if a driver's injury claim is for $10,000 in damages, but the driver is found to be 10% at fault for their injuries, their recovery will be limited to 90% of his damages — here, $9,000.
California Car Accident Compensation Laws: At a Glance
Below, you'll find a table breaking down important aspects of California's car accident compensation laws, including time limits, limits on damages, and more.
Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.
Types of Damages Resulting from Car Accidents
Car accident damages are often categorized as economic damages and non-economic damages. Economic damages include repair or replacement of the damaged cars, past and future medical bills and medical expenses, lost income, and other out-of-pocket expenses. Non-economic damages cover things like pain, emotional distress, and disability or disfigurement.
Examples of damages that result from car accidents include:
- Pain and suffering
- Medical expenses and medical payments
- Rental cars
- Lost wages
- Loss of affection or companionship
Limits on Damages in California
Unlike many other states, California does not have a cap on damages in personal injury or car accident cases generally. However, there are a few traps that can limit or eliminate your compensation for a car accident.
The first, and often most strict limit, is the time limit (statute of limitations) for filing a legal case. In California, you have two years for personal (bodily) injury claims and three years for property damage claims under state law. That time period is drastically shortened, however, if a government party (for example, a police cruiser) is involved — then, you'd then have only six months to file.
There is also a unique limit for California car accidents involving a driver with no insurance or proof of financial responsibility. In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 213, which states that, regardless of who is at fault in the accident, if a driver does not have insurance, they cannot recover non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering or emotional distress. Economic damages, such as lost wages or damage to one's car, are still available if fault can be shown.
Finally, for serious personal injuries that lead to hospital stays, a cap on medical malpractice damages could affect your livelihood as well. Should your car accident injury turn into something more severe due to the fault of a medical professional, your non-economic damages would be limited to $250,000.
Have Specific Questions About a California Car Accident Claim? Ask a California Car Accident Lawyer
As you can see, the limits on damages in car accident claims in California are few and only affect a narrow subset of claimants. This is good for drivers who are seriously injured and need larger awards to cover their expenses, but it also makes predicting the value of your claim very difficult unless you deal with car accidents regularly.
Speak with a personal injury attorney in California to learn the strength of your car accident case and the amount of compensation available for your case. Many personal injury lawyers, who are experienced with personal injury law, and their law firms offer a free initial consultation and can help you better understand your legal rights. Again, keep in mind that you should act promptly because of the time limit.