Who Is Liable in a California Car Accident?


So you bumped into another vehicle. You and the other driver suffered damage to your cars. Who’s liable? In this post, let’s talk about liability arising from a California car accident.

Every driver must observe ordinary care and skill when operating a motor vehicle. (This level of ordinary care and skill is often referred to as the standard of care in car accident law). A driver will be held liable for any damages caused for his failure to observe such a degree of care and skills. This liability attaches whether they intentionally caused the damage or were merely negligent in their actions.

Every driver must be reasonably vigilant and in control of their vehicle, and mindful of the foreseeable events. The law expects the driver to see what a reasonably prudent person would see.

So even if the other driver did not intentionally cause damage to your car, he might still be liable for negligence. This negligence covers acts that display wanton or reckless disregard of the natural and logical consequences of their manner of driving.

What Are Negligent Acts in Driving?

There is an inference of negligence when the driver goes too fast; thus, resulting in losing control of the car. (See presumption of negligence for violation of a statute). Texting or using one’s phone while driving is also a negligent act. Driving while sleepy or tired may also constitute a negligent act in this context.

Driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol can raise the presumption of negligence. With physical and mental attributes impaired, the intoxicated driver will have a diminished ability to operate the motor vehicle. Thus, he does not possess the faculties equal to that of a person of ordinary prudence. With intoxication as a contributing factor to the collision, the driver may be found liable.

Is There an Exception to the Observation of Reasonable Care?

Yes, the law permits certain exceptions. One of them is when the driver faced a sudden emergency situation where he needs to act quickly. In this case, the presence of imminent danger will excuse him from the failure to exercise sound judgment and prudence that one would expect from an ordinary person in a nonemergency situation.

So a driver who had to swerve to avoid hitting pedestrians who were suddenly in his path may not be liable. The same exception applies to the driver who changed lanes to avoid a head-on collision.

But for this exception to apply, the driver must meet these two requirements:

  • He must be free from negligence, which contributes to the occasion of the emergency.
  • He must act in the same way that a reasonably prudent man would act under the same emergency.

Can Minors or Impaired Persons Be Held Liable?

Yes, since the minor is engaged in an adult activity. The law expects a minor engaged in an adult activity, such as driving a car, to observe the same standard of care and skill as an adult. Even a mentally or physically impaired individual (assuming he has a license to drive) may be liable for failure to follow the same degree of care and skill.

In the case of a driver whose vision is impaired, will he be liable? With limited visibility, a driver must observe the standard of care and skill commensurate with the present circumstances. He must be mindful of the increased danger resulting from obscured vision. Thus, one should slow down when their field of vision is obstructed by glare, smoke, dust, or a dirty windshield. Failure to observe the requisite care and skill may result in liability for any resulting damage.

Intentional or Willful Misconduct Is Grounds for Punitive Damages

A plaintiff may recover punitive damages when his injuries were due to the defendant’s intentional, malicious, oppressive, fraudulent, or willful acts. Punitive damages awarded to accident victims serve as punishment to the defendant and deterrence against such vile actions. The attending malice is enough to support an award for punitive damages.

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