What Does Comparative Negligence Mean When Determining Who Is Liable For A Traffic Accident In California?

The question of how fault is determined in personal injury cases, including traffic accidents, is critical in how decisions about settlements and verdicts are arrived at. The state of California uses a relatively unique system of comparative negligence. This means that juries are asked to determine what percent of responsibility a negligent party is considered to have contributed to an incident before awarding a judgment. For example, if a fleet operator were found to be 75-percent responsible in a case that led to $1 million in harm to a person, the company would be expected to $750,000 in damages.


The basic idea of traffic accident law in the United States is inherited from the English common law notion of personal injury. This is the notion that a negligent parties actions led in some way to someone being hurt, and the injured party has a right to sue for compensation for their pain, suffering and recovery. Well into the 1900s, many U.S. states continued to use a system that focused on contributory damages. This was the idea that if an injured party contributed at all to their own injuries, then no damages were awarded.

Most U.S. states began to realize how problematic this could be. If, for example, a driver hadn’t fully checked the area before making a left turn, a company could, in theory, be let off the hook for failing to fix the brakes on a semi. Clearly, in such an instance, most juries would consider the operator of the truck to be severely at fault.

Surprisingly, as other states adopted comparative structures for awarding damages, California continued to lag behind the nation. Frustrated with the inaction of the state legislature, California’s Supreme Court enacted a standard on its own in 1975. The standard they adopted has since become considered one of the more favorable in the nation toward injured persons.

What Makes California Special

While the comparative standard has become the expected standard in the U.S., California’s law stands out in how it treats the questions of dividing up responsibility for injuries. In the vast majority of states, comparative negligence only leads to an award as long as the injured party is less than 50-percent responsible for the incident. If a motorist was speeding and failed to heed a traffic control device, such as yield sign while going up an on-ramp to an expressway, they might be seen as most responsible for the incident. Consequently, in most states, that person would receive zero compensation for being hit by another driver.

In California, it is possible for a person who was mostly responsible for an accident to seek damages against other parties. Juries are asked to simply decide whether the defendant is responsible for the injuries. If a driver on an expressway had room to give and avoid a collision with the hypothetical driver who failed to observe a yield sign, for example, they could still be liable for damages even if the plaintiff was found to be mostly responsible for what occurred. This also means that mixed cases of responsibility can lead to both parties being given awards of damages.

Instances involving multiple parties can get interesting. It’s not unusual, for example, for Californians to avoid suing a party that has no assets, even if they are largely responsible for an incident. For example, if a delivery van driver hits a car and is found 60-percent responsible while the van’s owner is found 20-percent, it’s common for actions to be pursued only against the business since it has the resources to actually pay out.


California’s comparative negligence rules make traffic accident suits somewhat more complex than in other states. The upside for drivers, though, is that they can sue even if they were found mostly liable. This can be especially beneficial for folks who suffered extreme injuries, as they may still receive larger awards.