How is Partial Fault Determined in a Car Accident Case?

Cartwright - May 18, 2019 - Car Accidents

After a car accident, it may be clear who was to blame. Perhaps a driver was heading the wrong way down a highway and then stumbled out of their car, obviously intoxicated. Maybe a driver lost control and crashed into your car that was completely and properly stopped at a red light. While these cases do happen, determining fault for a car accident is often significantly more complicated. This is partly because more than one party may have contributed to the crash.

Too many car accident victims fail to seek legal assistance because they know they were partially at fault in the crash. However, you should realize that in California, you can still seek financial recovery for your losses even if you were partially to blame. The following is an overview of how partial fault may be determined in a California car accident case. To discuss your specific situation, contact a San Francisco personal injury lawyer at The Cartwright Law Firm, Inc. right away.

Allocating Fault for a Car Crash

When the cause of an accident is not cut and dry, it can be difficult to identify which driver or drivers were to blame. In many cases, both drivers in a two-car collision may be partially at fault for different reasons. For example:

  • Another driver runs a red light
  • You glanced at your child in the backseat as you were about to pass through the intersection, so you did not see the other driver before the collision
  • If you had not been distracted, you likely could have stopped in time to avoid hitting the driver who ran the red light

Even though running a red light is an egregious violation of traffic laws, you may know you could have prevented the crash had you stayed focused on the road. Therefore, your distraction and inattention also contributed to the crash, and both drivers may be deemed negligent and partially liable.

How do you decide how to divide liability? Just because two drivers were both negligent does not mean they share the blame 50/50. As mentioned, running a red light is – generally speaking – a far more dangerous act than glancing away from the road for a couple of seconds, so wouldn’t the driver who ran the light be more responsible? In most cases, yes, though fault is divided on a case-by-case basis, and each driver will be assigned a percentage of fault.

Insurance Companies

One of the most common ways that an insurance company will try to limit payments to car accident claimants is by challenging liability. Insurance adjusters regularly review claims to see if the claimant may also be partially liable, which will reduce their payment. Each company has its own process for determining and apportioning fault.

Sometimes, the insurance adjuster for one driver will work together with the insurance company for the other driver. They will review all available evidence, including:

  • Witnesses reports
  • Police reports
  • Video surveillance footage
  • Text or phone records (if applicable)
  • Any citations issued by police officers to drivers for violations

For example, in the above scenario, the police may have cited the driver for running the red light but issued no citation to the distracted driver. This, with video footage confirming how the accident happened, may result in an insurance company deciding the first driver was 80 percent responsible while the distracted driver was 20 percent responsible.

When insurers decide on a division of fault, they will adjust the settlement offer accordingly. It is important to have an attorney on your side who can negotiate with the insurance company if they have unfairly divided liability. Your attorney can argue that you should not be held as responsible as the insurance company claims.

Juries at Personal Injury Trials

Sometimes, insurers cannot agree on the apportionment of fault. In addition, sometimes insurance companies refuse to budge from an unfair decision and an inadequate settlement offer. It may become necessary for your lawyer to file a personal injury lawsuit against the other driver.

During the litigation process, your attorney should be negotiating a favorable settlement offer with the other party, including how to divide fault. When a settlement agreement is not possible, the case will proceed to trial. Each attorney will present their client’s case, and then the jury will determine the percentage of each driver’s fault according to California’s jury instructions. When you leave this important decision in the jury’s hands, you need to make sure you have an experienced and persuasive litigator representing you.

Pure Comparative Negligence in California

Determining partial liability is an issue in many car accident cases, and each state decides the rights of accident victims who are partially responsible for the crash. California is a “pure comparative negligence” jurisdiction, which means that anyone can recover losses as long as they were not 100 percent liable for the accident. However, their recovery is reduced by their own percentage of fault.

Returning to the scenario involving the red light, consider the following:

  • The distracted driver incurred $100,000 in losses and filed an insurance claim
  • The insurance company determines that claimant was 20 percent at fault because they were distracted
  • The recovery is reduced by 20 percent and the maximum the distracted driver can recover is $80,000

On the other hand, the driver who was 80 percent liable also has the right to seek recovery for 20 percent of their losses.

Contact a San Francisco Car Accident Lawyer for a Free Case Evaluation

Assigning percentages of fault is not an exact science, and a few percentage points can cost you thousands of dollars in some situations. It is imperative that you have a San Francisco car accident attorney handling your case who understands how to fight against unfair divisions of liability.

The Cartwright Law Firm, Inc. has offices conveniently located in San Francisco, North Bay, Discovery Bay, and Santa Rosa. Someone is available to respond to clients 24/7, so please call or contact the office online to learn more about how they can assist you.


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Founder and Managing Partner

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