California Motor Vehicle Accident Laws and Safety Requirements

Although California boasts one of the lowest traffic accident fatality rates of any state, total annual traffic deaths still amount to close to 3,000 people. In California, an injured victim (or his legal guardian) can sue to recover his damages, and certain close relatives of a deceased victim can sue for their own losses as well as losses to the victim’s estate. Following is an introduction to the legal framework:     

Statute of Limitations: The deadline for filing a personal injury lawsuit in California is two years after the date of the accident in most cases. You have three years to file a lawsuit for property damage, and a wrongful death lawsuit can be filed within two years of the date of the victim’s death.

Shared Liability: When two or more parties are at fault for an accident, California personal injury law imposes a “pure comparative fault” system whereby each party’s damages are reduced by his own percentage of fault as determined by the court.

Fault/No Fault Rule: California is a “fault” state, which leaves the victim free to either file a lawsuit or file a claim against the opposing party’s liability insurance company.

Minimum Insurance Coverage: California requires drivers to carry liability insurance with maximum coverage limits of $15,000 per victim, $30,000 per accident and $5,000 for property damage. These maximums are lower than the maximums required by most other states.

Types of Damages Available: California offers standard compensatory damages including medical expenses, lost earnings and even intangible losses such as pain and suffering. Additional punitive damages (also known as “exemplary damages”) are possible if the victim provides clear and convincing evidence of “oppression, fraud or malice.” Punitive damages may not exceed ten times the amount of compensatory damages.

Uninsured/Underinsured Drivers: California does not require its drivers to purchase uninsured driver or underinsured driver insurance.

DUI/DWI Laws: California’s DUI laws are tough by national standards, which might explain its relatively low traffic fatality rate. You can be arrested with a BAC of 0.08%, or even 0.02% if you are under 21. More severe penalties apply if your BAC is at least 0.16%. For a first offense, the minimum jail term is four days (six months is possible), and the minimum fine is $1,400. You will lose your license for at least 30 days, and some counties will require you to install an ignition interlock device (IID).

Product Liability for Defective Vehicles: California was the first state to develop modern product liability law. You can win a product liability lawsuit over a defective auto or auto part by proving that the product is defective and unreasonably dangerous. You can establish this by showing that the benefits of the product’s design or manufacture were outweighed by its foreseeable risks.  

Motorcycle Helmet Laws: All California motorcycle riders are required to wear helmets.  

Seat Belt Laws: All occupants 16 or older must wear seat belts. The maximum fine for a first offense is $162 per person.

Dram Shop Laws: California’s dram shop law holds a licensed alcohol vendor liable for damages caused by the provision of alcohol to a minor (under 21) who then proceeds to injure or kill someone or damage property.

Distracted Driving (texting while driving, etc.): California bans texting while driving as well as the use of hand-held electronic devices for all drivers. On-duty school bus drivers and drivers under 18 are banned from using any kind of cell phone while driving. In the case of a driver under 18 who uses a cell phone, a citation can only be issued if the offender commits a separate offense for which the police officer makes a traffic stop.