Roberta is driving in the right lane of the 10 freeway in Los Angeles, but there is heavy traffic, so she has to slow down. The driver behind Roberta doesn't slow down fast enough, and rear-ends Roberta so that her car gets pushed into the vehicle in front of her. Roberta was wearing a seat belt, but feels immediate neck pain as soon as the collision occurs.
The police arrive, and call an ambulance to take Roberta to the hospital. She sees her primary care provider a couple of days later, and he diagnoses her with a whiplash-type neck injury. He tells her to rest for a couple of weeks. She is not better, and so he refers her to an orthopedist, who diagnoses her with a bulging cervical disc due to the accident. He prescribes two months of physical therapy, which helps a bit. It has now been a year, and Roberta is better, but not fully recovered. She missed a month of work as a nurse. The orthopedist believes that she is now as good as she is going to get.
The first thing that Roberta should do is report the incident to her own car insurance company, and to the insurer of the driver that hit her. If Roberta delays, the insurance adjuster might think that Roberta isn't hurt all that badly, or that the accident didn't necessarily happen the way Roberta says it did. Since the police came to the scene, Roberta should be sure to get a copy of the police report. Learn more: Do I Need to Report a Car Accident in California?
Roberta needs to be aware of California's statute of limitations, which is a law that sets a deadline for filing a car accident lawsuit.
In California, the statute of limitations for an injury-related car accident lawsuit is two years. This means, if you are involved in a car accident as a driver, passenger, or pedestrian, you have two years from the date of the accident to file a lawsuit in state court. However, if you are only filing a lawsuit over vehicle damage, the statute of limitations is three years. If the car accident results in someone's death, the California statute of limitations for a wrongful death claim is two years from the date of the person's death, if that date is different from the date of the accident.
If you don't settle your insurance claim, and the statute of limitations expires before you file a lawsuit, your case is over unless you fall within one of the very limited exceptions that might pause the clock. Don't wait until the last minute. If you can't settle your case well before the statute of limitations expires, it might be time to contact a California car accident lawyer.
As Roberta is recovering from her car accident injuries, she should keep the adjuster informed of her progress.
You want to make sure that the adjuster has all of the medical and financial documentation that supports your claim for damages. You also want to make sure that the adjuster has all of the information necessary to evaluate who was at fault in the accident. While a case like Roberta's (a rear-end collision) is almost always the tailing driver's fault, Roberta needs to be aware of the rules of comparative negligence because the driver that she was pushed into could claim that Roberta was negligent for rear-ending him. (Learn more about Fault for a Rear-End Accident.)
California has what is called a "pure comparative negligence" rule that applies to accident scenarios where both parties are found to share some amount of fault. Under this rule, if you are found to be at all negligent in connection with the accident, your award of damages is diminished in proportion to your fault. If, for example, you were awarded $100,000 in damages, but were found 20% at fault, your damages would be reduced to $80,000. If you were 90% at fault, you could still technically get $10,000.
In order to maximize your potential recovery, you want to make absolutely sure that the other driver's adjuster knows that you did nothing wrong. (Learn more about Proving Fault for a Car Accident.)
It's important to note that the other driver might carry only the minimum amount of liability insurance required under California's car insurance laws. In California, as of 2021, a driver is only required to carry bodily injury liability coverage in the amount of $15,000 per person and $30,000 per accident, and property damage liability coverage in the amount of $5,000 per accident. If your medical bills and other damages exceed those minimums, and the other driver carries no additional coverage, then an insurance settlement might not cover your losses. In that situation, you should probably talk to an attorney about your options.
In Roberta's case, her out-of-pocket (compensatory) damages total $21,200. The breakdown looks like this:
Given that Roberta has permanent injuries, Roberta and her attorney decide that another $60,000 in damages is appropriate to compensate for Roberta's pain and suffering in connection with the accident, and they make an initial demand of the defendant's policy limits of $100,000 to settle the claim. After negotiating with the insurance adjuster, Roberta accepts a final settlement of $75,000.
As mentioned above, you want to settle your claim or file a lawsuit (or at least turn the case over to a lawyer) well before the two-year statute of limitations time limit runs out. But you also don't want to settle it too early -- meaning before you are either fully recovered or are as good as you are going to get. This is known as reaching "maximum medical improvement" or MMI. In Roberta's case, she was at MMI, and so she was ready to settle.
Learn more about Settling a Car Accident Case.