A party bears liability when the law holds them legally responsible for something. In personal injury law, such a party bears liability for a personal injury. Not all liability is straightforward, however.
Sometimes parties bear liability without fault, and in some cases, one party can be liable for another party’s misconduct.
California law recognizes more than one form of negligence that can support liability—negligence, gross negligence, intentional misconduct, and contributory fault.
Negligence is a legal term that you might translate as “carelessness,” although negligence is a more nuanced concept. To prove a negligence claim, you must establish that the defendant breached a legal duty of care to you and that this breach was the proximate cause of your injury. For example, the defendant might have caused a car accident by “tailgating” you.
Negligence per se
“Negligence per se” may apply when the defendant violates a specific type of law. California law presumes that the violation of a safety law is negligence, for example. Once you prove that the defendant violated the law, the burden of proof is reversed. Now it is the defendant’s responsibility to prove that they were not negligent. Negligence per se is not a separate form of negligence. Rather, it is a shortcut to proving negligence liability.
Gross negligence is extreme negligence. It matters in California personal injury law if you are claiming punitive damages. Since courts pile punitive damages on top of ordinary damages, you need to prove gross negligence or intentional misconduct to win a punitive damages claim.
Intentional misconduct usually means a criminal act. Suppose, for example, that the defendant intentionally ran you off the road in a “road rage” incident. Alternatively, suppose that a bar bouncer unjustly beat you. In either case, you can use intentional misconduct as the basis of a personal injury claim.
Contributory fault is a legal weapon that the defendant can use against you to counterattack. For example, if the defendant can prove that you were partly at fault for the accident, they can chip away at their liability. If you were 25% at fault, for example, the court will reduce your damages by 25%.
Strict liability is liability without fault, or at least without the obligation to prove fault. California allows strict liability under the below-described circumstances.
If you suffer an injury from a defective product (malfunctioning automobile airbags, for example, or defectively manufactured prescription medication), you can win a lawsuit without proving fault. You need to prove that the product was defective, that it was unreasonably dangerous because of that defect, and that the defect caused your injury. You can even sue a wholesaler or retailer that did nothing more than sell the product.
Abnormally Dangerous Activities
California applies strict liability to certain activities, such as blasting, that are unavoidably dangerous. If you get hurt because of that activity, you can win a lawsuit even if the defendant took every possible safety measure to prevent injury.
Some states apply a “one bite rule” that allows a dog owner to escape liability for the dog’s first bite if the dog had never before exhibited aggressive tendencies. California does not apply the one bite rule. Instead, a dog owner is strictly liable for any injuries caused by their dog, no matter how careful they were. Homeowners’ insurance usually covers dog bites.
The workers’ compensation system covers work-related injuries. You cannot sue your employer in court, and you cannot demand non-economic damages. However, you can win your claim without proving your employer was negligent. In fact, in most cases, you can win even if the accident was your fault.
Vicarious liability refers to a situation where one party is liable for another party’s misconduct, as described below.
Respondeat Superior (Employer Liability)
“Respondeat superior” means “let the master answer.” In practice, it means that employers are usually liable for the on-duty misconduct of their employees. This principle does not apply to independent contractors. Check with your lawyer about this because California law on classifying workers as employees or independent contractors is in flux.
Dram Shop Liability for Intoxicated Minors
An alcohol vendor can bear liability for selling alcohol to a minor (under 21) who is obviously intoxicated. The vendor can bear liability, for example, if the minor causes an auto accident due to intoxication. Even though the vendor committed misconduct by serving alcohol to the minor, most jurists classify dram shop liability as a form of strict liability.
California law sometimes holds parents strictly liable for the misconduct of their minor children.
Personal Injury Damages
Once you establish liability, you can qualify for damages. Typical personal injury damages include economic damages and non-economic damages.
Economic damages include:
Economic damages represent tangible losses.
Non-economic damages include:
Other forms of intangible psychological suffering might also qualify.
Do You Need a Vista Personal Injury Attorney?
Whether you need a Vista personal injury lawyer depends on the amount of your claim and the complexity of your case. If your claim is too large to qualify for small claims court, for example, it is probably large enough to justify hiring a lawyer.