California Personal Injury Law

What Is Personal Injury Law in CA?

Personal injury law in California establishes the legal framework for imposing civil liability for injuries caused by the careless, reckless or intentional acts or omissions of others. If you were involved in a personal injury, it is important that you understand your rights. Here are some of the most important laws that may impact your personal injury claim in California.

Motor Vehicle Accidents

Below, are some of the laws most commonly associated with car accidents.

Pedestrian Laws

Drivers must stop and yield the right of way to pedestrians crossing the roadway within a marked or unmarked crosswalk. Pedestrians should not enter a crosswalk when it would cause an immediate hazard because of nearby traffic. When a "walk" signal illuminates, pedestrians facing the signal may cross the roadway in the direction of the signal and this signal gives them the right-of-way. Pedestrians should not start to walk on a "don't walk" or "wait" signal.

Pedestrians must yield the right-of-way to vehicles if crossing a roadway that is not a marked or unmarked crosswalk.

Driving Laws

Some of the most important laws that motorists must follow include:

  • Passing - Drivers must pass to the left at a safe distance and must stay in the passing lane until it is safe to return to the right lane. Drivers being passed should not increase their speed while being passed.
  • Following - A driver must not follow another driver more closely than what is reasonable and prudent and must consider the speed of other drivers and traffic conditions.
  • Turning left - Drivers turning left must give an appropriate signal and should only do so when the turn can be made reasonably safely.
  • Intersections - If two drivers approach an intersection at the same time, the driver on the left must yield the right of way of the driver on the right.
  • Mobile devices - Drivers must not operate a motor vehicle while using a mobile electronic device unless it is configured to allow voice-operated and hands-free operation to dictate, send or listen to a text-based communication.

Motorcycle Laws

All motorcyclists and their passengers are required to wear helmets while riding on roadways. Motorcycle headlights must be activated during darkness.

Insurance Requirements

In California, car owners must have an insurance policy that provides liability coverage that meets the minimum requirements of:

  • $15,000 per person
  • $30,000 for two or more people
  • $5,000 per occurrence for property damage

California uses a no-fault insurance system in which it finds that every owner of a motor vehicle is liable and responsible for an injury to a person or death or property damage caused by a negligent or wrongful act or lack of action up to the liability limits discussed above. If a car accident victim can show that the injury or death was caused by a driver's intoxication or willful misconduct, he or she can file a lawsuit against the driver.

Duty to Give Information and Render Aid

A driver involved in an automotive accident that causes injury or death must stop at the accident, render aid and provide their information. A driver must report any such accident to the California Highway Patrol or local police department within 24 hours of the accident.

Dram Shop Law

Dram shop law refers to the liability of commercial establishments that serve alcohol to patrons who cause injury to others due to their intoxication. An establishment can be held liable if it serves a minor alcohol and this alcohol was the proximate cause of a third party's personal injury or death.

Dog Bites

Many states use a "one bite rule" that protects dog owners from injury liability the first time their dog injures someone so long as they had no reason to know the dog was dangerous. However, California is not one of these states. Instead, the state makes the dog owner strictly liable for dog bites, even the first one. If the dog bites someone in a public place or lawfully in a private place, the dog owner can be held liable.

Medical Malpractice

Medical malpractice refers to a healthcare provider who breaches the appropriate standard of care when rendering services to a patient. The breach must cause an injury to the plaintiff. The standard of care is the term used to define the generally accepted procedures and practices that reasonable healthcare practitioners in the same area and specialty would use under the circumstances when treating a patient with the same condition. The standard of care may vary, depending on a variety of factors, such as the patient's age and health.

Medical malpractice is not simply making a medical mistake. The mistake must have resulted in the patient's injury. The mistake can occur at any point during the treatment process. This process includes providing medical care, diagnosing a patient, prescribing medication or conducting checkup procedures.

In California, plaintiffs in medical malpractice lawsuits are subject to additional procedural requirements and limitations. For example, plaintiffs must give their doctor or other health care provider who they plan to sue a formal notice of this intention at least 90 days before filing the complaint in the case. This notice must provide the following information:

  • The legal basis of the claim
  • The type of damages sustained
  • The nature of the injuries suffered

If this notice is served within 90 days of the statute of limitations (discussed below), the time when the lawsuit should begin must be extended 90 days from the date of serving this notice.

Medical malpractice cases are also subject to caps on attorney's fees. There is a sliding scale limit on the percentage a lawyer can charge on these cases, as described:

  • 40% of the first $50,000 recovered
  • 33% of the next $50,000 recovered
  • 25% of the next $500,000 recovered
  • 15% of any over $600,000

For example, if a person recovered $750,000 in damages, the maximum attorney fee charge would be $184,000, as calculated below:

  • $20,000 for the first $50,000
  • $16,500 for the next $50,000
  • $125,000 of the next $500,000
  • $22,500 of the next $150,000

Product Defects

California also has a number of laws related to defective products. To prevail on a claim of this nature, a plaintiff must establish the following:

  • The defendant designed, manufactured, distributed or sold a defective product
  • The product had a defect when it left the defendant's possession
  • The plaintiff used the product in a reasonably foreseeable way
  • The Plaintiff suffered harm because of the defect

When considering if a product was used in a reasonably foreseeable way, manufacturers must consider how the average consumer will use and misuse a product. A jury determines if the defendant took reasonable precautions and whether the plaintiff's use was reasonably foreseeable.

California's strict liability laws allow a plaintiff to hold a defendant strictly liable for his or her injuries, even if the plaintiff cannot show that the defendant acted in any type of negligent manner.

Strict liability applies to the following types of product defects:

  • Manufacturing defects - These defects occur when there is a mistake in the manufacturing process so that a certain batch of products are defective.
  • Design defects - These defects occur when a product is innately defective due to a dangerous design.
  • Warning defect - These defects occur when there are inadequate warnings.


Most personal injury cases in California are brought under a theory of negligence. This requires showing the following legal elements:

  • The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care
  • The defendant breach the duty of care
  • The plaintiff was harmed
  • The defendant's negligence was a substantial factor in causing the harm

The duty of care may be imposed by law, such as teachers having a duty to provide proper supervision to children in their care or drivers having a duty to obey traffic laws. Negligence occurs when a person fails to use reasonable care to prevent harm to himself or others. A jury must determine what a reasonably prudent person would have done under the same or similar circumstances when considering the duty of care.

Premises Liability

Premises liability refers to the liability of property owners and those in control of the premises for injuries and damages that arise out of this property ownership or control.

Premises liability claims include:

  • Slip and fall accidents
  • Construction accidents
  • Dog bites
  • Injuries caused by negligent or willful misconduct by third persons

These claims rely on the same principles as negligence, including duty, breach of duty, causation and damages. However, there are special rules to help determine if these elements have been established.

When determining the identity of parties who are liable for damages, important elements are ownership, possession and control of the premises. Without these elements, the party has no duty to exercise reasonable care. Owners or possessors of property have a duty to act reasonably to keep the property safe and prevent others from being injured.

There may be different duties, depending on the circumstances. Latent or concealed hazards should be corrected or the property owner should warn others about them. Store owners should conduct reasonable inspections and correct hazards when discovered. In addition to addressing potential hazards on the property, property owners may also be responsible for the conduct of third parties. Property owners must take action to control the wrongful acts of third persons if they have reasonable cause to anticipate that similar acts can happen on the premises in the future.

Courts can consider many factors when determining if there is a legal duty owed, including:

  • The proximity between the defendant's conduct and the injury suffered
  • The moral blame applied to the defendant's conduct
  • The foreseeability of harm
  • The degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury
  • Policies to prevent future harm
  • The defendant's extent and burden of imposing a duty to exercise care with liability for breaching the duty of care
  • The availability and cost of insurance for the risk involved

Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations is the time limit to file a lawsuit after a person has suffered harm. In California, the statute of limitations for most personal injury claims is two years. This means that a personal injury victim has two years from the date of the accident to file a lawsuit. If the injury is not known, the victim has one year from discovering the injury to file the lawsuit.

If the accident is filed against a government entity, the plaintiff must file an injury claim within six months and follow specific procedural rules.

Pure Comparative Negligence Rule

In many personal injury cases, more than one party may be at fault. In some cases, the victim is also partially at fault. California uses a pure comparative negligence system to handle these matters. Under this framework, an accident victim's amount of compensation is reduced by an amount equal to his or her percentage of fault for the accident. For example, if a person suffered $100,000 in damages and is found to be 20 percent at fault, he or she can only recover up to $80,000. If the accident victim was more at fault for the accident, he or she cannot bring a claim.

Damage Caps and Limits

California has rules regarding when damage awards must be capped or limited. Examples include:

No Non-Economic Damages for Uninsured Drivers

Economic damages are those damages that have a monetary value attached to them that are often easier to quantify, such as medical expenses incurred after a car accident or lost wages that a personal injury victim suffered. Non-economic damages refer to other damages that are not attached to any economic harm and include damages for such items as pain and suffering, inconvenience or disfigurement.

California law generally prevents uninsured drivers from recovering non-economic damages after a car accident, even if the other driver is completely at fault. However, there is an exception to this rule. If the uninsured driver is in an accident with an intoxicated driver and the intoxicated driver is convicted of DUI related to the accident, the rule will not be imposed.

Medical Malpractice Cases

There is also a damages cap in medical malpractice cases. Non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases are capped at $250,000.

Contact a Personal Injury Lawyer in California

If you were injured in an accident in California and would like to learn more about your legal rights and options, you may wish to contact an experienced California personal injury lawyer. He or she can explain your rights and handle all communications with the insurance company. He or she can also identify the parties who may be legally responsible for your injuries and the legal theories that apply to your case.

When selecting a personal injury lawyer, it is important to choose someone who is experienced with the particular type of personal injury claim you are dealing with, such as medical malpractice or product defects.

Most personal injury lawyers in California charge on a contingency fee basis, meaning that they do not get paid for their legal services unless they are able to recover compensation through a settlement or jury award. If the plaintiff loses his or her case, the lawyer may not receive any payment for his or her services. However, the lawyer may be entitled to payment for legal costs but not legal fees. Legal costs include charges such as copying charges, phone charges, filing costs, fees paid to expert witnesses and other costs that are part of the litigation process. Clients may be required to pay these costs upfront or the lawyer may advance the costs but then be required to be reimbursed. This information should be included in a retainer agreement.

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