I thought I would start a series about personal injury case law that came from the California Court System. First, it is important to note for laypersons that law gets made in the United States in one of two ways, either by statutes and regulations created by legislatures, or by case law from courts of appeal deciding certain issues on appeal from the trial court. This series will discuss some of these case law decisions related to tort law in California. The first case I think is highly relevant is the 1975 California Supreme Court decision of Li v. Yellow Cab. Co. 13 Cal.3d 804.
Facts of the Case: The plaintiff (“Li”) was making a left hand turn at a downtown Los Angeles intersection. The defendant (a cab driver with the Yellow Cab Company) was approaching from the opposite direction and collided with the right side of plaintiff’s vehicle. The trial court decided that the defendant was traveling at an unsafe speed and tried to beat out a yellow light and that this was the cause of the accident. It also determined, however, that the plaintiff was not acting reasonably when she attempted to make a left hand turn across multiple lanes of traffic at a busy intersection.
Issue To Be Resolved by the Calfornia Supreme Court: Prior to this point in time (1975), California, like many other states, had been following a system of “contributory negligence”. This rule of law stated that if the plaintiff was just as much or more at fault for an accident as the defendant, the plaintiff should receive nothing. This “all or nothing” system didn’t allow for much flexibility in cases such as this one where it could really be argued that the plaintiff should be allowed to recover for their injuries and property damage even if they are partially at fault for the incident.
Ruling of the Court: The Supreme Court of California noted that there was a long history of cases going back to the English common law that held that a person claiming recovery should not recover money damages for injury which they brought upon themselves. The court noted a trend towards trying to apportion the recover of a plaintiff to his or her percentage of fault as a more equitable system. They then held that the plaintiff in this case should be allowed to recover damages for medical expenses and destruction of property but, simply have that recover reduced by whatever percentage that a judge or jury might determine to be the percentage of fault attributed to the plaintiff. This clearly established the doctrine of “comparative negligence” in California and quickly thereafter became the rule of law in most every other state in the U.S. where it had not already been law.
What does this long-standing court ruling mean for Californians injured in personal injury accidents? As a personal injury attorney in California that represents people injured in auto and other accident claims, I think this case and the law it established means a great deal to anyone who is injured and seeks compensation for medical bills and property damage. So often, the analysis as to who may be at fault in a personal injury claim such as an auto accident is not “cut and dry”. Could we say that the plaintiff in the “Li” case should have been more careful before initiating that left hand turn? Yes. Could we say that the cab driver trying to beat the yellow light and speeding through the intersection was just as much if not more at fault? Yes again. Cases like this happen all the time. It is great that a judge or jury can now decide that even if there is some negligence or fault on the part of the injured person, they should still be able to collect some damages but, fairness might dictate that those damages get reduced by some amount.