There were almost 160,000 collisions in California in 2012, producing more than 226,000 injuries. Some, but not all, of the people who were injured are entitled to compensation. Some people who are hurt in a car accident cause their own injuries by driving dangerously, but others are the victims of another driver's carelessness.
To decide whether you have a personal injury case from a car accident that is worth pursuing, you need to consider two factors: liability and damages. They are the two keys to successful lawsuits that personal injury lawyers consider when they decide whether to accept a case.
Liability means responsibility. To recover compensation for injuries you sustained in a car accident, another driver must be at fault. Most of the time it is only worth pursuing that driver for compensation if the driver was insured. People who cannot afford insurance usually have no money with which to pay judgments, even if you sue them and win.
Another driver is liable for your injuries if that driver was negligent and if the negligence caused your injuries. Negligence means a failure to drive with the ordinary care that society expects from drivers. The violation of a traffic law (speeding, running a red light, failing to yield the right-of-way at an intersection) is usually convincing proof of negligence. If a driver's negligent driving caused the accident and the accident caused your injuries, the driver is liable.
Sometimes two drivers share responsibility for an accident. That is typically true when a collision occurs in an intersection. The driver who failed to yield the right-of-way bears the greater share of fault, but the other driver may be partially responsible if he or she could have anticipated and avoided the accident.
When the fault is shared, California's comparative negligence law apportions damages in proportion to fault. That means a driver who is 75 percent at fault must pay 75 percent of the other driver's damages. Even if you are 90 percent at fault, you are entitled to recover 10 percent of your damages from the other driver, but it is only worth pursuing that claim if two things are true:
- the other driver was not injured or suffered minor injuries that do not offset your claim
- your injuries are so severe that collecting 10 percent of their value is a claim worth pursuing
Whether you have a case also depends on whether you can prove that the other driver was at fault. In he said, she said cases with no independent witnesses, proof of liability may be difficult. Sometimes an accident reconstruction expert with an engineering background can help prove liability, but the expense of hiring an expert is justified only in cases involving severe injuries.
If you were not injured, you do not have a personal injury case. If damage was done to your car, you can make a property damage claim against the other driver's insurance company or you can seek payment under your own policy's collision coverage.
If you were injured and your injuries were caused by a negligent driver who was entirely or mostly at fault for the accident, you probably have a claim for compensation that is worth bringing. If your injuries were minor, you might want to pursue the claim yourself. That is particularly true if you did not see a doctor for an assessment or treatment of the injuries. It is almost never worth the time and expense of bringing a lawsuit to recover damages for minor injuries that did not require medical care, but it might be worth your time to negotiate a small settlement to cover any pain and suffering you experienced.
More serious injuries create the kind of case that is more clearly worth pursuing. You know you were seriously injured if:
- You were hospitalized after the injury
- You saw a doctor in the emergency room or an urgent care doctor after the accident and obtained significant follow-up care afterward
- You saw a doctor after experiencing the delayed onset of symptoms (such as neck pain) and required significant treatment to resolve the problem
- You suffered broken bones
- You needed physical or occupational therapy to help you recover from the injury
- You will have disfiguring scars
- You have a permanent or long-lasting injury
- You lost significant wages because you could not work after the accident
- Your medical bills for treatment related to your injury exceed $10,000
Some injuries that do not fall into one of these categories may nevertheless be sufficiently serious to justify making a personal injury claim with the help of an attorney. Every case is different. To know whether you have a case, talk to an experienced car accident lawyer about your accident and the injuries you suffered.