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California Auto Accident Attorneys

According to the National Safety Council, over 40,000 people lose their lives each year in auto accidents. In addition, over 5 million people each year seek medical treatment for injuries resulting from auto accidents.

An auto accident can disrupt a person’s life and limit a person’s ability to work. Many auto accidents cause permanent and debilitating injuries. A driver or passenger injured in an auto accident that was caused by another driver’s negligence is entitled to be compensated by the at-fault driver and to recover damages from the at-fault driver.

Negligence is key to recovering damages…

If you have been injured in an auto accident, you will need to prove three things in order to recover damages:

  1. The driver of the other vehicle (the defendant) was negligent;
  2. You were harmed; and
  3. The defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing your harm.

“Negligence” means that the other driver failed to use reasonable care to prevent harm to others. A person can be negligent by actions or by failing to act. In general, California law will find a person negligent if that person does something that a reasonably careful person would not do in the same situation, or if that person fails to do something that a reasonably careful person would do in the same situation.

For auto accidents, all drivers are required to use reasonable care while driving a vehicle and must keep a lookout for pedestrians, obstacles, and other vehicles and control the speed and movement of their vehicles. The failure to use reasonable care while driving is considered negligence.

Speeding Auto Accidents

Many auto accidents are caused by speeding. Basically, drivers must not drive so fast that they create a danger to people or property.  California’s basic speed law is set out in Vehicle Code § 22350:

No person shall drive a vehicle upon a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable or prudent having due regard for weather, visibility, the traffic on, and the surface and width of, the highway, and in no event at a speed which endangers the safety of persons or property.

The speed limit is, of course, a relevant consideration when deciding whether a driver was negligent by driving too fast. It is, however, only one factor, and a driver is not necessarily negligent just because the driver was driving faster than the speed limit. On the other hand, a driver may be negligent even if the driver was driving at or below the speed limit.

Left Turn Accidents

Auto accidents frequently occur when someone is trying to make a left turn. California’s law regarding left turns is set out in Vehicle Code § 21801:

(a) The driver of a vehicle intending to turn to the left or to complete a U-turn upon a highway, or to turn left into public or private property, or an alley, shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles approaching from the opposite direction which are close enough to constitute a hazard at any time during the turning movement, and shall continue to yield the right-of-way to the approaching vehicles until the left turn or U-turn can be made with reasonable safety.

(b) A driver having yielded as prescribed in subdivision (a), and having given a signal when and as required by this code, may turn left or complete a U-turn, and the drivers of vehicles approaching the intersection or the entrance to the property or alley from the opposite direction shall yield the right-of-way to the turning vehicle.

Section 21801 refers to vehicles that are close enough to constitute a “hazard.” In these situations, a hazard will be found to exist if any approaching vehicle is so near or approaching so fast that a reasonably careful person would realize that there is a danger of a collision or accident. Basically, a driver attempting to make a left turn is required to make sure that any oncoming vehicle is not so close as to be a hazard.

Passenger’s Duty of Care

In many auto accidents, a passenger is seriously injured or even killed. No passenger is required to be aware of the roadway conditions and can rely on the driver of the vehicle to use reasonable care. If, however, a passenger becomes aware of a danger, a passenger must take reasonable steps to protect his or her own safety. This includes becoming aware of the impairment of the vehicle’s driver, through alcohol or otherwise.

Seatbelts

It is mandatory under California law to wear seatbelts while a driver or a passenger of a vehicle. If a person injured in an auto accident was not wearing a seatbelt, the defendant can raise this as an affirmative defense at trial. In order to be successful, the defendant has to establish the following:

  1. A working seatbelt was available;
  2. A reasonably careful person in plaintiff’s situation would have used a seatbelt;
  3. Plaintiff failed to wear a seatbelt; and
  4. Plaintiff’s injuries would have been avoided or less severe had plaintiff used the seatbelt.

California’s law requiring the use of a seatbelt can therefore be brought to the jury’s attention, but the jury gets to decide what weight, if any, to give to the law to determine whether plaintiff used reasonable care.[1]

NEGLIGENCE PER SE 

Negligence per se is the violation of a statute, regulation, or ordinance. If you have been injured in an auto accident and the other driver violated a statute, regulation, or ordinance, the other driver will be negligent per se if you can establish the following:

  1. The defendant violated a statute, regulation, or ordinance; and
  2. The defendant’s violation of the statute, regulation, or ordinance was a substantial factor in causing your harm.

In these situations, a defendant will be found negligent unless the defendant can establish that the violation of the statute, regulation, or ordinance should be excused.

The doctrine of negligence per se creates an evidentiary presumption that affects the standard of care in an auto accident case.[2] In such a case, the statute, regulation, or ordinance establishes the duty and the standard of care for the defendant; however, a plaintiff will still have to prove causation and that defendant’s violation of the statute, regulation, or ordinance was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s injuries.[3]

VICARIOUS LIABILITY

An employer will, in most circumstances, be held responsible for the negligence of an employee if the employee’s negligence occurred while in the scope of his or her employment. If, therefore, you are involved in an auto accident with another person while that person was at work, the person’s employer will typically be responsible for the negligence of the employee and therefore liable to you for your damages. This includes employees of governmental entities, such as drivers of garbage trucks and CalTrans vehicles. The doctrine of vicarious liability is a rule of policy in the state of California based on a deliberate allocation of risk and is considered a cost of doing business for the employer.[4]

NEGLIGENT HIRING, SUPERVISION, OR RETENTION

 

The driver of a vehicle may not be the only person who is responsible for an auto accident and liable to the injured person for damages. In some situations, the driver’s employer may be liable under the principles of negligent hiring, supervision, and/or retention. In these cases, the driver’s employer will be held liable if the plaintiff can establish the following:

  1. The employer hired the employee;
  2. The employee was or became unfit or incompetent to perform the work for which he or she was hired;
  3. The employer knew or should have known that the employee was unfit or incompetent and that this created a particular risk to others;
  4. The employee’s unfitness or incompetence harmed the plaintiff; and
  5. The employer’s negligence in hiring, supervising, and/or retaining the employee was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s harm.

NEGLIGENT ENTRUSTMENT OF A VEHICLE

Someone other than the auto’s driver may also be held responsible under the doctrine of negligent entrustment. In these situations, a person who entrusted a vehicle to a negligent driver may be liable to an injured person. In these cases, a plaintiff has to establish the following:

  1. The driver of the auto was negligent;
  2. The defendant either owned the vehicle or had possession of the vehicle with the owner’s permission;
  3. The defendant knew, or should have known, that the driver was incompetent or unfit to drive the vehicle;
  4. The defendant permitted the driver to drive the vehicle; and
  5. The driver’s incompetence or unfitness to drive was a substantial factor in causing harm to plaintiff.

In these cases, it is not enough to prove only that the owner of the vehicle entrusted the vehicle to the driver who was then negligent. Instead, it must be proven that the driver was incompetent or unfit to drive the vehicle at the time it was entrusted to him or her and that the owner knew, or should have known, that the driver was incompetent or unfit. Liability is imposed not based on the relationship of the parties but from the act of the owner’s entrustment of the vehicle when the owner knew, or should have known, that the driver was incompetent, inexperienced, or reckless.[5]


STATUTORY LIABILITY OF OWNER OF VEHICLE

If the owner of a vehicle has done nothing other than permit another person to drive it, the owner may still have statutory liability to someone injured by the negligence of the vehicle’s driver. California Vehicle Code § 17150 states the following:

Every owner of a motor vehicle is liable and responsible for death or injury to person or property resulting from a negligent or wrongful act or omission in the operation of the motor vehicle, in the business of the owner or otherwise, by any person using or operating the same with the permission, express or implied, of the owner.

Vehicle Code § 17151(a) then limits such liability to the following:

The liability of an owner, bailee of an owner, or personal representative of a decedent imposed by this chapter and not arising through the relationship of principal and agent or master and servant is limited to the amount of fifteen thousand dollars ($15,000) for the death of or injury to one person in any one accident and, subject to the limit as to one person, is limited to the amount of thirty thousand dollars ($30,000) for the death of or injury to more than one person in any one accident and is limited to the amount of five thousand dollars ($5,000) for damage to property of others in any one accident.

If the only claim against an owner of a vehicle is based on the ownership of the vehicle that someone else was negligently driving, then the owner’s liability is likely limited by statute to $15,000/$30,000 for personal injury or death as a result of an auto accident.


LIABILITY OF COSIGNER

In certain situations, a person may be liable for a driver’s negligence if the driver only had a learner’s permit. Section 17707 of the California Vehicle Code states the following:

Any civil liability of a minor arising out of his driving a motor vehicle upon a highway during his minority is hereby imposed upon the person who signed and verified the application of the minor for a license and the person shall be jointly and severally liable with the minor for any damages proximately resulting from the negligent or wrongful act or omission of the minor in driving a motor vehicle, except that an employer signing the application shall be subject to the provisions of this section only if an unrestricted driver’s license has been issued to the minor pursuant to the employer’s written authorization.

In these situations, an injured person may be able to recover from someone who co-signed a minor’s application for a driver’s license if the following factors are established:

  1. The defendant signed the minor’s application for a driver’s license;
  2. The minor was negligent in the operation of a vehicle;
  3. The plaintiff was harmed; and
  4. The minor’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing the harm.

Section 17709(a) of the Vehicle Code then states the following:

No person, or group of persons collectively, shall incur liability for a minor’s negligent or wrongful act or omission under Sections 17707 and 17708 in any amount exceeding fifteen thousand dollars ($15,000) for injury to or death of one person as a result of any one accident or, subject to the limit as to one person, exceeding thirty thousand dollars ($30,000) for injury to or death of all persons as a result of any one accident or exceeding five thousand dollars ($5,000) for damage to property of others as a result of any one accident.

If, therefore, the only claim against the cosigner is based on the fact that he or she cosigned for the minor’s learning permit, then the cosigner’s liability is likely limited by statute to $15,000/$30,000 for personal injury or death as a result of an auto accident.

PROVIDING ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES TO MINORS

Drunk drivers kill or injure thousands on the roads in California. Those injured often seek to hold someone else responsible for providing alcohol to the drunk driver. Under California law, there are only two situations in which another person can be held responsible for providing alcohol to someone else, and this liability can be found only if the drunk driver was a minor.


Social Host Liability for Providing Alcohol to Minor

It is possible to hold a social host liable for furnishing alcohol to a minor. California Civil Code § 1714(d) states the following:

Nothing in subdivision (c) shall preclude a claim against a parent, guardian, or another adult who knowingly furnishes alcoholic beverages at his or her residence to a person whom he or she knows, or should have known, to be under 21 years of age, in which case, notwithstanding subdivision (b), the furnishing of the alcoholic beverage may be found to be the proximate cause of resulting injuries or death.

In order to prevail on a claim for social host liability, the following factors must be established:

  1. The defendant was an adult at the time of the auto accident;
  2. The defendant knowingly furnished alcoholic beverages to a minor at the defendant’s home;
  3. The defendant knew or should have known that the minor was under 21 years of age at the time;
  4. The plaintiff was harmed by the minor; and
  5. The defendant’s furnishing of alcoholic beverages to the minor was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s harm.

If a defendant over the age of 21 furnished alcohol to a minor and then the minor drove a vehicle while under the influence and harmed another, the injured person may be able to recover from the defendant.


Commercial Liability for Providing Alcohol to Minor

In addition to social host liability, liability may be imposed on a person or business selling alcoholic beverages to an obviously intoxicated minor. In order to establish such a claim, a plaintiff must prove the following factors:

  1. The defendant was licensed or was required to be licensed to sell alcoholic beverages or was authorized by the federal government to sell alcoholic beverages on a military base or other federal enclave.
  2. The defendant sold or gave alcoholic beverages to a minor or caused alcoholic beverages to be sold or given away to a minor;
  3. The minor was under the age of 21 at the time;
  4. When defendant provided the alcoholic beverages to the minor, the minor displayed symptoms that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that the minor was obviously intoxicated;
  5. The minor harmed the plaintiff; and
  6. The defendant’s selling or giving alcoholic beverages to the minor was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s harm.

In order to establish that a minor was “obviously intoxicated,” factors to be considered are whether the minor had impaired judgment, alcoholic breath, incoherent or slurred speech, staggering or unsteady walk, loud or argumentative conduct, flushed face, and other signs of intoxication. It is not enough to prove that the minor had been drinking alcohol and that the defendant sold or gave it to him but instead the minor must be obviously intoxicated at the time the defendant sold or gave him alcoholic. The standard for determining “obvious intoxication” is measured by that of a reasonable person.[6]

SUDDEN EMERGENCY DEFENSE

Sometimes defendants will claim that they should not be held liable for their negligent acts because there was a “sudden emergency.” In order to escape liability under this theory, a defendant has to prove the following:

  1. There was a sudden and unexpected emergency situation in which someone was in actual or apparent danger of immediate injury;
  2. The defendant did not cause the emergency; and
  3. The defendant acted as a reasonably careful person would have acted in similar circumstances, even if later it appears that a different course of action would have been safer.

This defense is also called the sudden or imminent peril doctrine. A defendant seeking to avoid liability must prove that he or she is without negligence and was suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with imminent danger to himself or others.[7]

CAUSATION

In addition to proving that an auto driver was negligent, an injured person must also establish that the other driver’s negligence caused his or her injuries. In order to prove this, the injured party must establish that the negligence was a “substantial factor” in causing the injuries.

The term “substantial factor” can be misleading and confusing. A “substantial factor” means only that the negligence contributed to cause the injury and was more than a remote or trivial factor. If a reasonable person would consider the negligence to have contributed to cause the harm, then it was a substantial factor in causing the harm. In contrast, negligent conduct is not a substantial factor if the harm would have still occurred even without the negligent conduct.

The negligent driver’s actions do not have to be the only cause of a plaintiff’s injuries. To the contrary, a person’s negligence may combine with other factors to cause harm and that person’s negligence can still be a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s harm. The law in California is clear that a defendant cannot escape liability just because someone else may have also contributed to cause the plaintiff’s harm.

Apportionment of Fault

When there are two or more causes for a plaintiff’s injuries, a jury may be asked to apportion fault. For example, an auto accident may involve two defendants who point the finger at each other, each saying the other caused the accident. In these situations, the jury can find that both defendants are responsible, at least in part, for plaintiff’s injuries and that each of them bear some responsibility.

At trial, a defendant may ask the court to permit apportionment of liability even for someone who is not a defendant in the case or who settled prior to trial. If the jury finds that the other person’s actions, whether a defendant or not, were a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s injuries, the jury will be able to apportion fault to this person. This is done by percentages. If both the defendant and the non-party are found to be equally at fault, then they will each be found 50% responsible.

Prop 51

In many situations, defendants are “jointly and severally” liable, which means that any defendant may be responsible for paying all of plaintiff’s damages, even if it is more than the percentage of fault allocated to that defendant. California limited joint and severally liability when it enacted Prop 51, which has been codified at Civil Code § 1431.2(a). This section states the following:

In any action for personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death, based upon principles of comparative fault, the liability of each defendant for non-economic damages shall be several only and shall not be joint.  Each defendant shall be liable only for the amount of non-economic damages allocated to that defendant in direct proportion to that defendant’s percentage of fault, and a separate judgment shall be rendered against that defendant for that amount.

Under Prop 51, therefore, a defendant’s joint liability is limited only to economic damages. For non-economic damages, a defendant’s liability is limited to that particular defendant’s percentage of fault.

For example, a jury renders a verdict of $500,000 for economic damages and $500,000 for non-economic damages for a total verdict of $1,000,000. A defendant who was found only 1% at fault will still be responsible for paying all of the plaintiff’s economic damages, or $500,000. But, that defendant will only be responsible for paying 1% of the plaintiff’s non-economic damages, or $5,000.

Comparative Negligence

In some cases, the injured party may have also been negligent and contributed to cause the auto accident. In these situations, the law does not prohibit the injured party from recovering damages. Instead, a jury will be asked to determine the injured party’s comparative fault, or the percentage of fault to be placed on the plaintiff. For example, if the jury finds that the defendant was 90% at fault, then the plaintiff will be found to be 10% at fault.

If a plaintiff is found to be at fault, the plaintiff’s damages will be reduced by that percentage of fault. For example, if the plaintiff is 10% at fault, the plaintiff’s damages will be reduced by 10%. If the jury awards the plaintiff $1,000,000, that amount will be reduced by 10% and the plaintiff will only be entitled to recover $900,000.

Medical Causation

A common tactic of defense counsel is to argue that a plaintiff’s injuries were not actually caused by the auto accident. For example, a person may start having low back pain following an accident and eventually be told surgery is required. The defendant’s attorney will then argue that the accident did not cause the low back pain and/or the need for surgery is not due to the auto accident. In these situations, it is imperative that the injured party have experienced and knowledgeable attorneys involved in the case. Expert testimony is usually required to establish the injuries were, in fact, caused by the auto injury.

In many situations, a plaintiff may have an underlying or preexisting condition that is exacerbated by an auto accident. If the plaintiff establishes that an underlying or preexisting condition was made worse by the auto accident, the plaintiff is entitled to damages that will reasonably compensate him or her for the effect on that condition.

DAMAGES

If you have been injured in an auto accident caused by someone else’s negligence, you may be entitled to recover your damages, both economic and non-economic.

Economic Losses or Special Damages

Economic damages are ascertainable monetary amounts, including lost wages and medical bills. If injuries are severe, the person may not be able to return to work and therefore may be entitled to the loss of future wage-earning capacity for the remainder of the anticipated life expectancy. In addition, some people injured in an auto accident require medical treatment for the rest of their lives. To calculate the amount that this long-term care will cost, our firm may retain a specialist to prepare what is known as a “life care plan,” which is a plan that sets out medical and medically related care that will be needed over the remainder of the injured person’s life.

Non-Economic Losses or General Damages

Non-economic damages include items such as emotional distress, mental pain and suffering, physical pain and suffering, disfigurement, and humiliation.

Wrongful Death

In some situations, an auto accident can result in death. In such a case, the deceased’s family members, or wrongful death beneficiaries, may be entitled to recover the medical bills as well as the funeral and burial costs. The deceased’s loved ones can also recover for their own damages due to the loss of love and society of the deceased person.

TIME LIMITS FOR FILING CLAIMS FOR AUTO ACCIDENTS

In California, the statute of limitations for filing most claims is two (2) years from the date of the injury. If, however, the claim is against a state or local governmental entity, including auto accidents in which the at-fault driver was employed by the city, county, or state, the deadline to provide notice of your claim may be as little as six (6) months. For this reason, if you believe you or someone close to you may have a claim for damages as the result of an auto accident, you should contact an experienced attorney as soon as possible.

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[1] Housley v. Godinez (1992) 4 Cal. App. 4th 737, 747.

[2] Turner v. Seterus, Inc. (2018) 27 Cal. App. 5th 516, 534.

[3] David v. Hernandez (2014) 226 Cal. App. 4th 578, 584.

[4] Perez v. Van Groningen & Sons, Inc. (1986) 41 Cal.3d 962, 967.

[5] McKenna v. Beesley (2021) 167 Cal. App. 5th 552, 566.

[6] Schaffıeld v. Abboud (1993) 15 Cal. App. 4th 1133, 1140.

[7] Leo v. Dunham (1953) 41 Cal.2d 712, 714.

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