California Car Accident Laws

An in-depth look at a driver's obligations after a car accident in California, the state's comparative negligence rule, and more.

By , J.D.
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  • After any kind of traffic accident in California, drivers have certain obligations when it comes to reporting the crash. And if you want to explore your options for holding the at-fault driver financially responsible for your losses, there are a few state laws that could have a big impact on your case. In this article, we'll discuss some important statutes relating to car accidents in California, including:

    • the requirement to report a car accident to law enforcement and/or the DMV in certain situations
    • the deadline for filing a car accident lawsuit in California's civil court system, and
    • the state's claimant-friendly "pure comparative fault rule," which allows financial recovery when the claimant was partly (even mostly) responsible for causing the car accident.

    Reporting a California Car Accident

    Do I Need to Report a Car Crash to Law Enforcement in California?

    According to California Vehicle Code section 20008, the driver of any vehicle (or a representative of that driver) involved in a car accident must, within 24 hours, make a written report of the crash to the California Highway Patrol or to the police department of the city where the accident occurred, if the crash resulted in injuries or death of any person (driver, passenger, motorcyclist, bicyclist, electric scooter rider, pedestrian, etc). If the agency that receives the report is not responsible for investigating the accident, that agency will forward the matter to the proper investigating authority.

    It's important to note that, if a law enforcement officer comes to the scene of your accident, he or she will prepare a written report of the accident on behalf of the agency. In that situation, you need not make your own separate written report.

    Do I Need to Report a Car Accident to the California DMV?

    In many situations, the answer is yes. Any driver involved in an accident in California needs to report the crash to the California DMV within 10 days if:

    • anyone involved in the accident was injured (however slightly)
    • anyone was killed in the accident, and/or
    • the crash resulted in property damage (meaning damage to a vehicle or real property) of more than $1,000.

    Learn more about Traffic Accident Report SR1 and get a copy of the form (from the California DMV website).

    For more information on the rules for reporting a car accident in California, you can refer to California Vehicle Code sections 20000 through 20018.

    Should I Report the Accident to My Car Insurance Company?

    States do not generally have any laws on whether—or when—policyholders who get into a car accident should report the accident to their automobile insurer, and California is no exception.

    However, every automobile insurance contract requires the policyholder to report a car accident to the insurer very soon after the fact. The sooner the insurer knows about the accident, the sooner it can start investigating the claim. If the insured fails to report an accident within a reasonable period of time, the insurer may deny coverage in connection with the crash. An insurance company could define a "reasonable period of time" as being as little as a day or two, depending on the circumstances of your accident.

    Bottom line: Even if your car accident was minor and did not rise to the level of a "reportable accident" in California, you still want to report it to your automobile insurer just to make sure that the carrier will provide coverage for the accident if you should need it. Learn more about contacting your car insurance company after a car accident.

    California Car Accident Statute of Limitations

    A "statute of limitations" is a state law that sets a time limit on a potential plaintiff's right to bring a lawsuit. These deadlines vary depending on the kind of harm you suffered and/or the kind of case you want to file. Get the details on the California car accident statute of limitations.

    California's Comparative Negligence Rule in Car Accident Cases

    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 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-based lawsuit (should your case get that far), but you can be sure that a car insurance claims 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 Car Insurance Rules

    Car insurance is certain to play a part in any claim that's made after a car accident. California, like most states, requires the owner of a motor vehicle to maintain a certain amount of insurance coverage—or otherwise demonstrate financial responsibility in case an accident occurs—in order to operate the vehicle legally on the state's roads and highways. So, understanding the California auto insurance rules is essential to any potential car accident case. For details, read up on California's car insurance rules and requirements.

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