California Car Accident Laws

When you need to report a car accident in California, the time limit for filing a car accident lawsuit in California courts, and more.

By , J.D. University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated 11/18/2021

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, including:

  • 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

It technically depends on the nature of the crash, but in most situations you'll need to report a car accident to law enforcement and/or the California DMV, and to your car insurance company.

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 isn't responsible for investigating the accident, they'll 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, they'll prepare a written report of the accident on behalf of the agency. In that situation, you don't need to 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 don't 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. And if you don't report the accident within a reasonable period of time, the insurer may deny coverage in connection with the crash.

Bottom line: Even if your car accident was minor and didn't 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 end up needing it. Learn more about contacting your car insurance company after a car accident.

What Is the California Car Accident Statute of Limitations?

A "statute of limitations" is a state law that sets a limit on the amount of time you have to go to court and file a lawsuit over some type of harm or loss. Failure to comply with the deadline often means you've lost your right to take your case to court. Get the details on the California statute of limitations for car accident cases.

What If Government Negligence Caused Your California Car Accident?

If you were injured and/or had your vehicle damaged in an incident that was pretty clearly caused by the negligence of a government employee in California—you were rear-ended by a city bus, for example—any claim you file will need to follow a special set of rules. You'll need to provide notice of your claim to the right government agency within six months, and give the state or municipality a chance to respond to your allegations. Learn more about filing a claim under the California Tort Claims Act.

What If I'm Partly At Fault for My Car Accident In California?

If you share part of the fault for 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 the language of the law, this makes California a "pure comparative negligence" state.

How Does "Pure Comparative Negligence" Work?

Not only do California judges and juries follow this rule in court (should your lawsuit 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 $100,000—including vehicle damage, medical bills, lost income, and pain and suffering.

Under California's comparative fault rules, you're entitled to recover $85,000 from the at-fault driver (your $100,000 in damages minus 15% as your percentage of fault).

Can California Parents Be Liable When a Teen Driver Causes a Car Accident?

Yes. California parents and legal guardians could face financial responsibility for all resulting injuries and property damage any time:

  • they give express or implied permission for their minor child to drive a vehicle (whether or not the minor is actually licensed), and
  • the minor ends up causing a car accident.

Get the details on California's parental responsibility laws.

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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