Hundreds of people die in car accidents each year in San Diego. Several thousand more suffer serious injuries. Determining fault following an auto accident is an important step towards obtaining compensation for victims who may be faced with thousands of dollars in medical bills and lost wages as a result of their injuries.
Negligence Under California Law
While some states take a no-fault approach to car accidents—that is, each person is expected to seek compensation from their own insurer first—California retains a traditional, fault-based system. This means that accident victims are free to pursue a personal injury claim against an at-fault driver. In some cases, such as multicar accidents, there may be more than one party at fault for the victim's injuries.
In the moments following a car accident, where you might have sustained a personal injury, what should you do? Patricia L. Zlaket
, a personal injury attorney with Zlaket Law Offices, APC in San Diego, says that it’s OK to talk to the others involved immediately after the accident.
“When collisions happen it’s a really heightened time. Everyone is on edge, it’s usually a surprise and a lot of emotions are at play,” she says. Many lawyers advise not saying a word after an accident, but Zlaket considers this approach, “a little more human.”
Zlaket suggests checking on others involved, calling authorities and paramedics as needed, and exchanging insurance information. However, it’s important that you not say anything about the accident, such as offering an apology. Anything said to suggest that you’re at fault can be used as proof of negligence in a subsequent lawsuit.
Perhaps the most common method for establishing fault in a car accident is to prove that one driver violated the “rules of the road.” For example, let’s say the defendant ran a red light and struck the plaintiff's vehicle. This would establish the defendant was “negligent per se,” since he violated an established state traffic law-—all drivers must obey traffic signals—and that act caused the accident and the plaintiff’s subsequent injuries.
There are other cases where negligence is highly likely but not always presumed. For instance, when one car rear-ends another, the rear driver is usually—but not always—determined to be at fault. Similarly, if a car makes a left turn and hits another vehicle going straight ahead, it is generally the fault of the driver making the turn.
Additional evidence from the accident scene can be critical information when it is not immediately clear who was negligent. In most serious accidents, a police officer will take charge at the scene and prepare an official report. The first thing Zlaket looks at is the police report, which she says is useful but not foolproof. It does not, by itself, prove a driver’s negligence. There may also be other people who witnessed the accident and can provide testimony.
Zlaket says that evidence may also include things such as photos and videos of the accident scene. In some complicated cases, an accident reconstructionist will work together details such as road skid marks, car damage, traffic light timing and speed to determine how the accident happened.
How Comparative Fault Can Affect a Personal Injury Award
Of course, many car accidents end up with each driver accusing the other of being at fault. But even if the plaintiff was partially to blame, that does not get the other driver off the hook. Under California's “pure comparative negligence” rule, a jury must assign a certain percentage of fault to all parties involved in the accident. The plaintiff's recovery is then reduced accordingly. In other words, if the plaintiff sustained $10,000 in damages and is 20 percent at fault, their final ward would be $8,000.