Understanding Prop 51 & Apportionment of Fault in California

Understanding Prop 51 and Apportionment of Fault in California

In 1986, voters in California approved Proposition 51. This is also known as the Multiple Defendants Tort Damage Liability Act. Today, Prop 51 is used to discourage plaintiffs from filing lawsuits against entities simply because they have “deep pockets,” or lots of money.

If you have suffered a personal injury and there are multiple responsible parties, it can be challenging to navigate all the rules surrounding Prop 51. This is why you need expert legal counsel from Adamson Ahdoot LLP.

In this article, we will explore some of the most common questions surrounding Prop 51 and how it applies to personal injury lawsuits.

What Is the Fair Responsibilities Act of 1986 or the “Deep Pocket” Rule?

The Fair Responsibilities Act of 1986 is also known as Proposition 51 or the “deep pocket” rule. It was passed in 1986 and is codified in California as Civil Procedure Section 1431.2.

Before this act was passed, some plaintiffs would look for entities with the most money or “deepest pockets” to sue. These entities would then potentially be responsible for 100% of all economic and non-economic damages, no matter how many defendants there were.

Prop 51 modified joint and several liabilities. It changed the rules surrounding who pays for non-economic damages in a lawsuit. It allows for multiple defendants in a lawsuit and assigns proportional liability for non-economic damages to each party. For example, if there are three responsible parties, the non-economic damages might be divided into thirds or portioned out into 50%, 40%, and 10% of the damages, based on each party’s involvement in the incident. “Non-economic damages” typically refer to physical pain, emotional distress, and mental suffering.

Under Prop 51, it is still possible for 100% of the economic damages to fall onto one party, particularly if the other parties are unable to pay their shares. With this rule, “economic damages” are defined as “objectively verifiable monetary losses, including medical expenses, earnings loss, and others specified…”

With this rule, defendants are jointly responsible for economic damages and severally responsible for non-economic damages. However, a recent case, B.B. v County of Los Angeles (2020) made a notable exception to this rule. It found that if one defendant is responsible for intentional tort (wrongful acts done on purpose), they will have to pay 100% of the non-economic damages.

What Is Contributory Negligence, and How Might It Affect a Settlement?

Contributory negligence is when a plaintiff is at least partially responsible for their injuries. In some jurisdictions, if a plaintiff is found to have contributory negligence, they can be completely barred from receiving any settlement, even if the negligence from the defendant was more serious. Contributory negligence has been abolished in most jurisdictions. It is still used in Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

“Contributory negligence is when a plaintiff is at least partially responsible for their injuries.”

Here is a simple example. A man named John was riding his bike on the sidewalk. A woman named Michelle ran a stop sign and hit John with her car. Because riding a bicycle on the sidewalk is illegal in some jurisdictions, John’s actions fall under contributory negligence. He would not be eligible for compensation from Michelle, even though her negligence was much greater.

Contributory Negligence vs. Comparative Negligence

Contributory negligence is seen as particularly harsh. This rule makes it extremely difficult for plaintiffs to receive damages if they have any responsibility for their injuries. Comparative negligence, on the other hand, recognizes the fault of multiple parties and portions out the settlement based on the percentage of fault.

There are multiple types of comparative negligence including pure, modified, and slight vs. gross comparative. California follows the doctrine of pure comparative. This assumes that multiple people are responsible for an accident. Whether you are 1% or 99% responsible, you can sue any of the other parties and collect at least a portion of the damages. Though, you can only collect damages for the percentage you are not at fault. For example, if you are 90% at fault, you can only collect 10% of the damages.

What Is Res Ipsa Loquitur?

The phrase “res ipsa loquitur” is Latin for “the thing speaks for itself.” In legal terms, this principle applies to plaintiffs and how they can meet the burden of proof with typically circumstantial evidence. This implies that the harm the plaintiff suffered would not have happened without some type of negligence from the defendant.

To establish res ipsa loquitur, the plaintiff must prove:

  • The event was not something that typically happens without negligence.
  • The plaintiff was not a great contributor to the event.
  • The incident was primarily caused by something in the defendant’s control.
How Does Res Ipsa Loquitur Differ from Negligence?

The res ipsa loquitur principle is used to assign liability in negligence cases where the negligence is implied based on the circumstances and cannot be directly proven.

The res ipsa loquitur principle is used to assign liability in negligence cases where the negligence is implied based on the circumstances and cannot be directly proven.

In all negligence cases, including Prop 51 personal injury cases, you must prove four legal elements:

  • Duty of Care: You must prove that the defendant owed you a duty of care. For example, drivers owe other people on the road a duty of care to safely operate their vehicles and obey traffic laws.
  • Breach of Duty of Care: You must prove that the defendant breached his or her duty of care. For example, when someone drives while drunk, this is a breach of duty of care. A reasonable person would not drive after drinking alcohol.
  • Causation: You must prove that the incident caused your injuries. For example, if you were hit by a drunk driver, this would show causation.
  • Damages: You must prove that you sustained damages. This includes economic and non-economic losses. 

Prop 51 Effect on Non-Economic Damages

Prop 51 was primarily established to change the rules surrounding non-economic damages in personal injury lawsuits. Before this proposition was passed, a single party, no matter how much responsibility they shared in the incident, could be liable for 100% of the non-economic damages.

With Prop 51 in California, the non-economic damages are divided amongst all the involved parties based on their percentage of liability. This applies to all personal injury lawsuits, including catastrophic injury cases.

What Does Apportionment of Fault Mean?

In California, Proposition 51 requires an apportionment of fault when there is more than one party responsible for an accident. If a case goes to trial, the judge or jury will decide what percentage of the damages each party is liable for.

For example, if Party A crossed the street without using a crosswalk and then was hit by a speeding driver (Party B), the jury might apportion the fault to 10% for Party A and 90% for Party B. The total damages would then be divided based on these percentages. If Party A was awarded $20,000 in damages, Party B would have to pay them $18,000.

What Qualifies as Significant Economic Damages?

Economic damages include verifiable monetary losses, like medical expenses, loss of earnings, costs of repairs, loss of use of property, and loss of employment. The value of these items is quantifiable, and the judge or jury cannot change them. The court will typically decide if the economic damages are considered significant.

Schedule a Free Consultation with Adamson Ahdoot Injury Attorneys

Have you been injured in an automobile accident or experienced pain and suffering from another type of accident? The experienced lawyers at Adamson Ahdoot LLP are here to help. We handle injuries from a wide range of accidents including boats, bicycles, commercial trucks, ride-share, and even mold-related injuries.

We understand the complexities of Proposition 51 and frequently handle Prop 51 auto claims. We have helped our clients in California and Los Angeles win millions in damages and restore their peace of mind. If you’re worried you can’t afford a lawyer, don’t be. You will only owe us for our services if you win damages. Contact us today for your free consultation.

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