California Car Insurance Requirements and Laws

How much car insurance is required in California? What are the penalties for driving without insurance in California?

By , J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law

In California, vehicle owners need to show proof of insurance (or another form of "financial responsibility") in order to register a vehicle, and if you're involved in a car accident in California, car insurance is sure to play a huge part. In this article, we'll explain:

  • California law as it relates to insurance and "financial responsibility" for car accidents and car insurance for registered vehicles
  • the minimum requirements for liability car insurance coverage in California, and
  • penalties for driving without insurance in California.

Is California a "No-Fault" Car Insurance State?

No. California follows a "fault" system when it comes to liability for a car accident. That means drivers are financially responsible for the effects of any accident they cause. Of course, from a practical standpoint, this is exactly what car insurance is for.

There are very few restrictions on the options of anyone injured in an accident, when it comes to pursuing an insurance claim or lawsuit against whoever caused the crash.

What Are My Claim Options After a Car Accident In California?

If you've suffered an injury as a driver, passenger, or pedestrian, you are usually free to take one or more of the following actions in trying to get compensation for your losses ("damages"), including medical bills, lost income, property damage, and "pain and suffering":

  • file a claim under your own insurance policy (if you have the right coverage, more on this later)
  • pursue a third-party claim through the at-fault driver's liability insurance coverage, or
  • file a personal injury lawsuit against the at-fault driver.

Note: In a no-fault car insurance state, a driver who has been injured in an accident doesn't usually have this same range of options, but California drivers don't need to worry about no-fault.

What Are the Minimum Car Insurance Requirements In California?

In order to comply with California's "financial responsibility" laws, most vehicle owners choose to purchase liability insurance coverage, and state law dictates the minimum amount that vehicle owners must carry.

This liability insurance is meant to compensate other drivers, passengers, or pedestrians who suffer property damage and/or personal injuries in a car accident caused by you (or caused by anyone covered under your liability policy).

The minimum amounts of liability coverage required under California law are:

  • $15,000 for injury or death to one person (another driver, passenger, pedestrian, etc.) in an accident you cause
  • $30,000 for injury or death to more than one person in an accident you cause, and
  • $5,000 for damage to property in an accident you cause.

Remember that these are only the California minimum requirements for liability car insurance coverage. You can (and in some situations should) carry more coverage to protect you in case a serious crash results in significant car accident injuries and vehicle damage. Once policy limits are exhausted, you're personally on the financial hook, so higher insurance limits can help protect your personal assets if you end up causing a serious crash.

Who Is Covered Under Liability Car Insurance In California?

Your liability coverage will kick in if any family member is driving your vehicle, or if you've given someone else permission to use it. It will likely also cover you if you get into an accident in a rental car in California.

Liability Coverage Won't Apply to Your Own Car Accident Losses

The liability coverage we discussed here doesn't apply to your own injuries or vehicle damage after a car accident. You'll need different (additional) coverage for that if you're involved in a car accident and no one else's coverage applies to your losses. For example, personal injury protection (PIP) or MedPay coverage can be used to pay your car accident medical bills, and collision coverage can pay for repairs to (or replacement of) your damaged vehicle after a car accident, regardless of who caused it.

Do I Need Uninsured Motorist Coverage In California?

California does not require drivers to buy uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage. But this kind of coverage can provide you with critical financial protection if you're in an accident with someone who has no car insurance, or whose coverage won't pay for your medical bills and other losses.

Other Options for Complying with California's "Financial Responsibility" Requirement

While the overwhelming majority of car owners in California will purchase a car insurance policy in order to comply with the state's "financial responsibility" laws, California does allow vehicle owners to choose from a few other methods of compliance. Instead of purchasing a qualifying insurance policy, vehicle owners can:

  • make a cash deposit of $35,000 with the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)
  • get a self-insurance certificate from the California DMV, or
  • get a $35,000 surety bond from an issuer licensed to do business in California.

Does California Accept Digital Proof of Car Insurance?

Yes. Since 2012, California drivers have been permitted to use a phone or other device to pull up official insurance documentation from their car insurance company (like a digital version of an insurance card) when asked for proof of car insurance (during a traffic stop, for example). Of course, a physical copy of your insurance card is still perfectly acceptable.

What Are the Penalties for Driving Without Insurance In California?

The California Department of Motor Vehicles will suspend the registration of any vehicle for which required proof of insurance hasn't been received, and that vehicle can't be driven or even parked on public roads until proof of insurance is received. Drivers who are in violation of California's financial responsibility laws can also face fines and driver's license suspensions.

These penalties may end up paling in comparison with the kind of financial peril you might find yourself in if you're uninsured and you cause a car accident.

California's "No Pay, No Play" Law for Uninsured Drivers

Another penalty for driving without insurance relates to the legal remedies available to you if you're injured in a car accident.

California's "no pay, no play" law says that if you're injured in an accident while you're driving without insurance, you're barred from recovering "non-economic" damages from the at-fault driver. Since non-economic damages include your physical and mental "pain and suffering," it's a big deal to have this kind of compensation taken off the table, especially if your injuries are serious. (California Civil Code section 3333.4.)

You can still recover non-economic damages against the other driver if they were driving under the influence at the time of the accident and were convicted of that offense.

More Information and Help

Learn more about the California laws that could affect a car accident case. And for more information on car insurance in California, see Insurance Requirements for Vehicle Registration from the California DMV.

If you've been injured in a car accident, you might need more than just information. Learn more about when you might need a car accident lawyer, and what to expect from your first meeting with a car accident attorney.

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