California law car insurance accident

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. Read on for the details.

(Note: If you’re looking for more in-depth information on car accident settlements and valuing a claim, visit our Car Accident Settlements section.)

Like every state, California has enacted laws that place time limits on your right to go to court and file a lawsuit. These laws are called “statutes of limitations,” and there are different rules for different kinds of cases. The time limits relevant to filing a lawsuit over a car accident in California are:

  • two years for filing a personal injury lawsuit (Cal. Code of Civ. Proc. § 335.1)
  • three years for filing a lawsuit for property damage (i.e. damage to a vehicle) (Cal. Code of Civ. Proc. § 338).

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 a good idea to make sure that any insurance claim is filed well before these deadlines for filing a lawsuit expire. 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). Bottom line: after a car accident, your safest bet is to get any insurance claim filed as soon as possible in order to protect your rights.

One last note on time limits: If your car accident involved the government in any way (a city bus rear-ended you, or the accident happened on government property, for example) you’ll need to follow a different set of rules when filing 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 (link takes you to our parent site, www.nolo).

If you share part of the fault for causing a car accident, state laws differ significantly when it comes to how your claim is affected. In California, you can recover compensation from any other at-fault party, regardless of the degree of your own fault. BUT any compensation you recover will be reduced by your percentage of fault. In legalese, this means California is 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-based lawsuit (should your case get that far), but you can be sure that an insurance claim adjuster will look to California’s comparative fault rules when figuring out how much your claim might be worth.

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 a police report that was prepared after the accident. Your car accident lawsuit makes it all the way to trial, and you’re deemed to be 15% at fault for the accident, while the other driver is 85% at fault. Your total damages are $10,000 -- including vehicle damage, medical bills, and lost income. Under California’s comparative fault rules, you’re entitled to recover $8,500 from the at-fault driver (your $10,000 in damages less 15% as your percentage of fault).

California laws on car insurance may also come into play after a car accident. For everything you need to know about car insurance in California -- including the minimum amounts of coverage required for registered vehicles in operation in the state -- check out our companion article California Auto Insurance Laws and Regulations .

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