Joint and Several Liability and Proposition 51 In Personal Injury Cases
Joint and Several Liability for Personal Injury Cases:
What happens if you are injured by two or more people? Who compensates you for your injuries? Is it just one person or is it divided between all the people that caused your injuries? Will you be compensated 100%? What happens if one defendant doesn’t have enough funds to compensate you? The following will help answer your valid questions.
Generally, a tortfeasor (at-fault party) is responsible for all damages for which he/she caused to another person. But what happens if there are multiple tortfeasors? This is where the Doctrine of Joint and Several Liability applies. The Court held that a concurrent tortfeasor whose negligence is the a proximate cause of an indivisible injury remains liable for the total amount of damages, diminished only in proportion to the amount of negligence attributable to the plaintiff. American Motorcycle Assn. v. Superior Court (1978) 20 Cal. 3d 578.
What this means is that if two or more people harmed you and it is indivisible (unable to divide, separate, or apportioned the harm) you can go after one or all of them to recover your damages, which is only reduced by your percentage of fault. However, this is only for special damages. Special damages are medical bills, property damage, income loss, etc…(See Special Damages).
Civil Code section 1431.2(a) (aka Proposition 51) was later enacted and modified the law for general damages, aka, pain and suffering or non-economic damages. Under Proposition 51, your pain and suffering is apportioned between all the tortfeasors according to each defendant’s percentage of fault. It states “(a) In any action for personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death, based upon principles of comparative fault, the liability of each defendant for non-economic damages shall be several only and shall not be joint. Each defendant shall be liable only for the amount of non-economic damages allocated to that defendant in direct proportion to that defendant’s percentage of fault, and a separate judgment shall be rendered against that defendant for that amount.”
If this is confusing, that’s ok, let’s take it one step at a time with examples. Assume that D1 and D2 caused you, Plaintiff, harm. Ok now let’s say your medical bills are $100,000.00 (medical bills are special damages). Let’s say D1 and D2 each have a $50,000.00 auto insurance policy liability limit. In that case you get $50,000.00 each from D1 and D2. But what if D1 has $25,000.00 and D2 has a $100,000.00 policy liability limit. Well under the Doctrine of Joint and Several Liability you can still get the total of $100,000.00 for your medical bills. You can get $25,000.00 (the max auto policy limits) from D1 and $75,000.00 from D2. The Doctrine of Joint and Several Liability allows you to recover fully for your special damages.
The problem is more complicated when general damages are figured out. General Damages are your pain and suffering (See General Damages). General damages are apportioned among the defendants according to each of their percentage of fault. Let’s use $100,000.00 again, but this time for your pain and suffering. Let’s also say, D1 and D2 were 50% at fault, and each had $100,000.00 policy limit. Well, in this case, both would pay you $50,000.00 each in general damages.
Ok that was easy. So let’s change it up a little. Let’s say D1 is found to be 80% at-fault and has a $100,000.00 policy. Also, let’s say D2 is found to be only 20% at-fault and D2 also has a $100,000.00 policy. So, now the $100,000.00 is not split evenly because of the apportionment of fault for each person. Proposition 51 requires that general damages be apportioned according to the percentage of fault for each defendant. D1 will now has to pay $80,000.00 in general damages. D2 will only have to pay $20,000.00 in general damages. The problem as you can see, D1 does not have enough money. Why? Well, the special damages are split evenly at $50,000.00 each. But not the general damages. D1 has to pay 80% of 100,000.00 which is $80,000.00. Recall D1 only has $100,000.00 total to pay out. That means, they pay $50,000.00 for special damages and another $50,000.00 for general damages because that is the max payout of $100,000.00. In the meantime, since D2 only has to pay $20,000.00 in general damages because D2 was found to be 20% at fault, the Plaintiff is unable to recover the last $30,000.00 that the Plaintiff is owed. Essentially, D1 will pay out its entire limit of $100,000.00, while D2 only has to pay $70,000.00. Now this means the Plaintiff is unable to collect $30,000.00 dollars, which is a tragedy. Contact The Law Firm of R. Sam to learn more.