Car Accident Laws in California

This article looks at a few key California laws related to car accident claims and settlements, including time limits for filing a lawsuit, and how your claim might be affected if you’re found to be partially at fault for causing the car accident.

Statutes of Limitations for California Car Accidents Claims
Pure Comparative Negligence Rule In California Car Accident Cases
How Is Fault Determined in California?
Do I Need to Report a Car Accident In California?
Car Insurance Requirements and Minimums In California
Dollar Limits on California Car Accident Claims
Your Next Steps After a California Car Accident


If you've been in any kind of car accident in California, a number of state laws could have a big impact on any car insurance claim or lawsuit you decide to bring.

The California Vehicle Code doesn't contain a universal definition of "collision" or "accident," but the California Highway Patrol defines "motor vehicle traffic collision" as:

An unintended event that causes death, injury, or property damage involving a motor vehicle in transport (in motion or in readiness for motion) on a roadway (a way or place) any part of which is open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular travel.

And when it comes to liability (who pays) for injuries and vehicle damage resulting from an accident, California's "financial responsibility" rules—which can be found starting at California Vehicle Code section 16020—declare that "All drivers and all owners of a motor vehicle shall at all times be able to establish financial responsibility" in case of an accident. That means California is a traditional fault-based state when it comes to financial liability for losses stemming from a traffic accident of any kind. Translation: Anyone who suffers physical injury or incurs property damage in a crash can typically seek compensation from the at-fault driver in California.

Those are the foundations of car accident laws in California. Here's a snapshot of what we'll cover in more depth below:

  • You typically have two years to go to court and file a lawsuit seeking compensation for injuries suffered in a car accident, according to California's statute of limitations for these kinds of cases.

  • California's "pure comparative negligence rule" means that you can usually still recover compensation for car accident injuries and other losses from other at-fault parties, even when you share some (or most) of the blame for causing the accident.

  • Most injury-related car accidents need to be reported in California, whether to law enforcement and/or the state's Department of Motor Vehicles, and you should always notify your car insurer of any crash you're involved in.

  • Most California vehicle owners comply with the state's financial responsibility rules by purchasing liability car insurance meeting the state's minimum coverage requirements.

California's Statutes of Limitations for Car Accident Claims

Like every state, California has enacted laws called "statutes of limitations," which place time limits on the right to go to court and file a lawsuit. Different deadlines apply to different kinds of cases. Most lawsuits over car accidents will be subject to one of two statutes of limitations deadlines in California:

Keep in mind that these time limits apply to filing a lawsuit after a car accident, not to filing an insurance claim. But it's always a good idea to make sure you get the insurance claim process started well in advance of these lawsuit deadlines. That's because if settlement negotiations break down, you'll want to have plenty of time to use the fallback option of filing a personal injury lawsuit in court (or at least threaten to use it in an attempt to get some leverage in negotiations). If you try to file your lawsuit after the statute of limitations deadline has passed, the court will almost certainly refuse to hear the case, and you'll have lost your legal right to get any kind of compensation for your car accident injuries and other losses.

Pausing the Statute of Limitations "Clock"

There are a few situations when the statute of limitations "clock" might pause (or "toll" in the language of the law) in California, effectively extending the filing deadline. For example:

Car Accidents Caused by Government Negligence in California

One last note on claim/lawsuit time limits: If your car accident may have been caused by the negligence of a government entity or employee (a city bus rear-ended you, or a poorly-maintained road contributed to the crash, for example) you'll need to follow a different set of rules of you want to make a claim against the government. Those rules require you to get your paperwork in pretty quickly, so throw the above deadlines out the window where the government is concerned. Learn more about claims against the government in Making an Injury Claim Under the California Tort Claims Act on www.nolo.com.

California's "Pure Comparative Negligence" Rule In Car Accident Cases

Even if you share part of the fault for causing your car accident, in California you can still recover compensation from other at-fault drivers, BUT if your court case goes to trial, any compensation you recover will be reduced by your percentage of fault. This makes California a "pure comparative negligence" state.

So, how is this "pure comparative negligence" rule applied in the real world? Not only do California judges and juries follow it in a court trial (in the rare event that your case makes it that far), you can be sure that the insurance adjuster handling your claim will have California's comparative fault rules in mind when figuring out how much your claim might be worth.

How "Pure Comparative Negligence" Works

For example, let's say you're in a car accident where another driver made an unsafe lane change and side-swiped you. But you happened to be driving a little fast at the time, according to witnesses and the police report. Your car accident lawsuit makes it all the way to trial, and you're found to be 15 percent at fault for the accident, while the other driver is 85 percent to blame. Your total damages are $30,000— including medical bills, lost income, vehicle damage, and "pain and suffering." Under California's comparative fault rules, you're entitled to recover $25,500 from the at-fault driver (your $30,000 in damages less 15 percent as your share of fault).

Even if the fault percentages were reversed in this example, and you were found to be 85 percent to blame for the accident, you could still technically recover 15 percent of your damages ($4,500 of the $30,000) from the other driver.

How Is Car Accident Fault Determined?

If there's one pivotal question in car accident cases, it's "Who was at fault for the crash?" In all but the most clear-cut accident scenarios (one vehicle rear-ends another at a stoplight, for example), the success of a car insurance claim or lawsuit can come down to your ability to prove that the other driver's carelessness (or "negligence") caused the accident.

But how is this done in practice? Every car accident case is different, and often car insurance adjusters and/or car accident lawyers will handle the bulk of the investigation after an accident, but proof (or evidence) of negligence typically comes from:

  • statements and testimony from the drivers, passengers, and others involved in the accident, as well as any witnesses who saw the crash happen (or saw one of the drivers looking down at a phone right before the crash occurred, for example)
  • summaries, conclusions, or other findings contained in the police report prepared by the law enforcement officer who came to the scene
  • the other driver committed a traffic violation or violated established "rules of the road" in connection with the accident
  • the accident scene, including skid marks, location of vehicle debris, and position of the vehicles
  • location and extent of vehicle damage, and even
  • cell phone records, security video/surveillance video footage.

Do I Need to Report a Car Accident In California?

Your legal responsibility to report a car accident (and where to report it) depends on the circumstances of the crash.

If a crash results in injuries to, or the death of, any person, the driver of any vehicle involved (or the driver's representative) must report the accident to the city's police department, or to the California Highway Patrol, within 24 hours. That legal duty is laid out in California Vehicle Code section 20008.

Note that if the law enforcement agency that receives the report isn't the one responsible for investigating the crash, the report will be forwarded on to the right place. And if a law enforcement officer came to the scene of your accident and prepared a report over the crash, you likely don't need to make your own separate report.

A car accident also needs to be reported to the California DMV within 10 days if anyone was injured or killed in the crash, and/or the crash resulted in vehicle damage (or any kind of property loss) of more than $1,000. Learn more about Reporting a Car Accident on the California DMV website.

Finally, regardless of the details of your crash—whether anyone was injured, or how much vehicle damage resulted—remember that every car insurance contract requires the policyholder to report an accident that might trigger coverage. If you don't tell your insurer about the accident within a reasonable time (that means within a few weeks at most) the company could deny coverage. Once notified about the accident, the insurer will almost certainly begin an investigation of what happened, especially if a claim has been filed by anyone involved in the crash. Learn more about how insurance companies investigate a car accident.

A Police Report Can Help (or Hurt) Your Car Accident Claim

If a California Highway Patrol officer or member of any other law enforcement agency came to the scene of your car accident, chances are there's been a police report generated in connection with the crash.

While these reports aren't usually admissible in court, insurance adjusters and attorneys still give them a lot of weight when negotiating an out-of-court car accident settlement, especially when the officer has noted any sort of opinion or finding of who might have caused the accident, or included witness statements strongly indicating that one driver bore the brunt of fault for the crash. Learn more about how police reports are used in a car accident case.

Do I Need Car Insurance In California?

Car insurance isn't technically required if you want to register and drive a vehicle in the state, but as we touched on above, California law requires that all vehicle drivers and owners be able to show "financial responsibility" for any accident they might cause. And most people comply with this mandate by buying liability car insurance that meets the state's minimum requirements, namely:

  • $15,000 per person in injury/death liability coverage for an accident caused by the insured person
  • $30,000 in total injury/death liability coverage for an accident caused by the insured, and
  • $5,000 in vehicle/property damage liability coverage for an accident caused by the insured.

To learn about other ways to comply with California's "financial responsibility" rules (and more), check out our article on California Car Insurance Requirements.

Are There Dollar Limits on California Car Accident Claims?

There's no California law that sets a limit on the amount of compensation you can receive for your losses after a car accident. Most categories of losses ("damages" in legalese) are on the table, as long as they result from the accident and they're supported by evidence. That includes:

  • medical bills
  • lost income
  • "pain and suffering" and other more subjective, non-economic effects of your injuries and the medical care necessary to treat them
  • payment for vehicle repair or replacement, and
  • rental car reimbursement.

But from a practical standpoint, your financial recovery may very well be limited to the total available car insurance coverage on hand. That includes the at-fault driver's liability coverage, and your own insurance (if the other driver's insurance won't pay for all of your losses). For example, if you have uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage, or personal injury protection/medical payments coverage, those might help bridge the gap between the limits of the at-fault driver's coverage and the full amount of your losses. Beyond that, you'd have to try to get money out of the at-fault driver themselves, which can be a challenge.

Next Steps After a California Car Accident

If you're ready to move forward with a car accident claim in California, or you're just looking to learn more about your options, it might make sense to discuss your situation with a lawyer. You can use the chat and questionnaire features right on this page to connect with a car accident lawyer near you, or check out our guide to hiring and working with a car accident lawyer.

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