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California Car and Traffic Accident Law
Were you injured in a car accident in California? If you were, you have a lot of unanswered questions.
- How will you pay for your medical bills?
- What is the overall process of pursuing a claim and how long will it take?
- The insurance company is calling and wants a recorded statement, should I give one?
There are so many things worrying you, your head is getting dizzy. The laws governing motor vehicle accidents are numerous, and even experienced attorneys need help keeping track of all of it. But as an injured victim, you don’t need to try and learn all of that. It’s important for you to know what your rights are, and what you need to do to protect those rights.
If you are ready to hire an attorney, visit San Diego Car Accident Attorney for more information.
This article provides an overview of California car accident cases and what you need to know to ensure your rights are protected. If after reading this whole article you still have unanswered questions, contact a personal injury attorney in your area immediately. Consultations are usually free, so it won’t cost you a thing.
Table of Contents
- 1 General Rule: You have a right to monetary compensation for any injuries caused by someone else.
- 2 Who is going to pay for your medical bills?
- 3 How long does a car accident case take?
- 4 How much time do I have to pursue a claim?
- 5 Do I have to pay back my health insurance company at the end of my case?
- 6 What if I’m injured by an uninsured motorist?
- 7 How much is your case worth?
- 8 Do you need a lawyer for your accident case?
- 9 Learn more about Accidents in California
General Rule: You have a right to monetary compensation for any injuries caused by someone else.
You have this right, even if you are a passenger injured in an accident in California.
That means if someone rear ends your car, and you are hurt because of that collision, they must pay you a sum equal to the amount of injuries they inflicted upon you. The legal world calls this “damages.” You can call it money. This amount must be reasonable.3 Which means, if you suffer whiplash, go to physical therapy for 3 weeks and fully recover, you probably shouldn’t be paid $1 million. That’s not a reasonable amount.
The reason you are paid money is because there is no other way to make you “whole” after you suffer injuries. If someone stole a TV from you, they can return it and you are “whole” again. If someone injures you, causing you to suffer and feel pain for 6 months, there is no way to undo that. There is no “reset” button on your body, or your brain. The emotional roller coaster you experienced can’t be undone. Since you can’t undo the injuries inflicted upon you, the defendant must pay you a reasonable sum of money to compensate you.
This sum of money may even include any damages in the future as well, as long as the future damages are certain enough to be counted.4 In order to recover money, you must prove the person was at fault, and they acted intentionally or negligently. Negligence means:
- You suffered injuries
- Caused by someone not exercising ordinary care or skill
- The accident and injuries were foreseeable
So if someone driving behind you was mad at you with road rage rams the back of your car, they owe you money for all of the injuries they caused. This is intentional because they meant to cause you harm. However, if that person behind you was just slow to react, was not paying attention, or was texting and driving, they still owe you money if they rear end your car and injure you.
This is called negligence. Everyone is responsible for any injuries they intentionally cause, as well as injuries caused by their lack of ordinary care and or skill.5 There are basic elements to prove negligence:
- The defendant owed you a duty of care. That duty is, not to cause you any extra risk or harm.
- The defendant violated this duty. They breach this duty by failing to exercise normal amounts of care
- You were injured
- The negligent act by the defendant actually caused your injuries
An example of negligence when it comes to vehicle collisions would be a driver who is following you too closely. A traffic signal ahead turns yellow so you apply the brakes to slow down like a normal prudent person would. The driver behind you takes too long to react and proceeds to collide with your car’s rear bumper.
A normal, prudent person would not have followed you so closely so they would have more space and time to slow and stop their car.
Who is going to pay for your medical bills?
After your car accident, you need medical treatment right away. The bills for an ambulance, emergency room, visits to your primary doctor, physical therapy, and chiropractor start piling up. Before you know it, you have received thousands of dollars in medical treatment.
Who is going to pay for this? Ultimately, the person who caused your injuries will be responsible for all costs. However, they usually won’t pay up until the end of the case, which could be months or years. So how do you pay these bills for now, so your doctors won’t send them to collections ruining your credit?
The answer to this question is not simple. There are several options to pay for these bills, and an experienced car accident attorney will be best prepared to help you understand these options.
- Medical Payments/No Fault Coverage. Commonly referred to as “med pay.” This is optional coverage is contained within your auto policy.6 It is no fault, which means they will pay your bills even if you caused the accident. A common limit is $5,000 but I’ve seen policies as low as $1,000 and as high as $20,000. Your insurance company will often ask for reimbursement after the case ends.
- Health insurance. If you have health insurance coverage through an employer or individually, they will usually cover any treatment. There is a contractual duty to pay them back after the case is over, but at least you will not have to pay for the costs up front.
- Medicare/Medical. They will pay for treatment but are aggressive in being repaid7
- Signing a lien. There are a lot of doctors and facilities that will treat you on lien. What this means is, they will not collect payment until the case is over. However, you still owe this money even if you decide not to pursue the case.
- Out of pocket. If you have no other way to pay for bills, and the doctor will not sign a lien, then you may have to pay for the bills out of your own pocket, and hope for a quick settlement so you may be repaid.
Until the case is settled and all medical provider bills have been settled, you are ultimately responsible for all bills incurred.
How long does a car accident case take?
A typical case takes anywhere from a few months to several years. That answer isn’t very useful at all. However you might find the following information useful. The most important requirement is that your medical treatment be finished before any settlement is reached. There are times when you won’t be 100% healed, but you’ve reached a stable condition, and further treatment will not produce any more improvement.
Simple cases can often be settled within 4-6 months after the date of accident. These are cases with less significant injuries, such as a rear-end accident at a red light, where the victim suffered soft tissue injuries. After a couple months at a physical therapist or chiropractor and you’re completely healed. Liability is pretty straightforward, since it’s the fault of the person who hit you from behind.
These cases can usually settle soon after you complete treatment as long as the insurance company is being reasonable (which isn’t always the case). If you suffered more significant injuries, requiring visits with a pain management doctor, or a neurologist, your case will take a little longer. Again, once treatment is complete, settlement negotiations will begin.
If a significant procedure such as surgery is required, then the case will be extended even further. If the insurance company is being unreasonable, then throw all of these numbers out of the door. They’re playing hardball, and nothing short of filing a lawsuit will get the case moving forward. Once a lawsuit has been filed, the case can last a year or even more, from the date of filing.
But settlement talks can still continue after the lawsuit has been filed.
How much time do I have to pursue a claim?
In general, the answer is two years. Within two years: An action for assault, battery, or injury to, or for the death of, an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another.8
This is what lawyers call the “statute of limitations.” This is the maximum time you may file a lawsuit after the act that caused you injuries. In a car accident, you have 2 years after the date of accident to file a lawsuit. The reason why there is a time limit is because there is a public interest to limit lawsuits that are too far out. With the passage of time, evidence and witnesses become more unreliable. Would-be defendants should also be allowed to reach a point where they are no longer worried about a lawsuit being filed agains them.
There are exceptions to this time limit, but they’re hard to qualify for. Remember: Once this time runs out, you can no longer file a lawsuit for these injuries. Government claims. If the person who caused your injuries works for the government, the time limits and procedures are different. You have 6 months from the date of the accident to file a Government Claim. If they deny your claim, which they often do, you have 6 months from the date you receive the rejection to file a lawsuit.
However, if the government never responds to your claims, you can file a lawsuit within 2 years of the date of accident. While 2 years seems like a long time, it goes by fast. So you should never wait to speak to a qualified car accident lawyer. Consultations are usually free, so there is no cost to speak to, or even hire an attorney.
Do I have to pay back my health insurance company at the end of my case?
Usually, yes. If your health insurance was used to pay for your medical bills, in most cases there is an obligation to pay them back if you receive a settlement or jury award from a 3rd party. The exact nature of that obligation depends on many factors. This is a highly specialized and complex area of the law.
The only thing you need to know is if your health insurance paid for your medical bills, and you recover those costs from the person who hit you (usually through their auto insurance policy) then you more often than not, have to pay the health insurance company back. If you paid for the care yourself, then you would receive that amount back. But because someone else paid for the care, they deserve to be reimbursed because your injuries were caused by someone else.
As a practical matter, you can negotiate with quite a few of the companies looking for reimbursement. Negotiations are not always easy nor successful, but an experienced car attorney will be familiar with persuasive arguments and case law and can use this in your favor. There are different legal mechanisms where health insurers are paid back. Which one applies depends on many factors. But here is a brief description:
- LIENS. A lien is basically a right against your property, until a debt is paid off.9 They are created by contract or by statute. Liens have severe consequences for those who do not abide by lien rules.
- REIMBURSEMENT RIGHTS. The right for an insurer or provider to be reimbursed is contingent on you recovering funds from a 3rd party. Because the claimant (you) did all the work to recover these monies, the reimbursement amount can be reduced for attorneys costs and fees due to equitable reductions.
- SUBROGATION. Similar to reimbursement rights but in this case the injured client gives to the payer of medical bills (your insurance) a right to pursue reimbursement directly from the party responsible for causing the accident.
As you can see, something seemingly simple as paying back your health insurance company after the case is over, is anything but simple. It’s a very complex area and failing to handle it properly can cause you to miss out on thousands of dollars, or worse.
What if I’m injured by an uninsured motorist?
If so you must move fast to protect your rights. You need to be sure the other vehicle doesn’t have any insurance (or is underinsured). Then you need to be sure you carry uninsured/underinsured (UM/UIM) coverage on your own policy. You can read more here:
How much is your case worth?
After a car accident, this is the #1 question of injured victims once things settle down. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer or formula that will definitely answer your question. There are so many factors affecting the value of your case. The value of your case can be simply summarized as:
Medical Costs + Future Medical Costs + Missed Time at Work + Future Earning Capacity + Pain, Suffering & Inconvenience + = Value of Your Case
Looks easy right? If only it were so. Just looking at this formula gives you the sense this isn’t so simple at all. The hardest part to calculate is “pain, suffering and inconvenience.” Calculating loss of future earning capacity is also hard, but at least that is a concept most people understand.
If you were making $50,000 a year before your injuries, but now you can only take jobs that make $30,000 a year, we know the accident has caused you to lose $20,000 earning capacity per year, for the rest of your normal working life. Pain and suffering however, is much harder to visualize. We do know the defendant owes you money for pain, suffering and inconvenience. They are liable for all the damage they have caused.10
How do you put a dollar amount on the pain you suffer every day? What is the value of the difficulties you experience every day because of the accident? We know you’ve experienced pain. We also know you have suffered. But when it comes time to place an actual dollar amount on this, where do you begin? We begin with your story. Your story is what drives the value of the case. Your story must be told to the adjuster, and to the jury if it gets that far. How was your life before the case? How was it after? How is it now?
Those are the questions that must be answered. And depending on the answers, the jury might give you more for pain and suffering, or less. This is why you can’t determine with any accuracy, the value of your case. Only rough, but educated guesses can be made when it comes to valuing your case.
Do you need a lawyer for your accident case?
Not always. Cases where you are not injured or your injuries are very minor, can often be handled on their own. If the insurance company does not want to pay a fair amount for a settlement, these smaller cases can be handled through the Small Claims Court.11
While you might not need a lawyer for your case, you should always contact one immediately after an accident. You don’t have to hire an auto accident lawyer right away, but it doesn’t hurt, and may help immensely to talk to one as soon as possible. Some advice is needed right away. Maybe the insurance companies (yours and the other driver’s) and are pressuring you to give a recorded statement and settle quickly.
A 30 minute conversation and case review with an attorney will lead you in the right direction, even if you aren’t planning to hire anyone real soon. I don’t charge for an initial conversation and case review. After a quick screening on the phone, a more in-depth conversation and review occurs in person or on the phone. This is all free of charge, if I agree to meet with you after the initial screening. To hire me, or most all other injury attorneys, you only have to sign a contract.
The contract itself can be revoked at anytime by you. But I work on a contingency basis. That’s just fancy lawyer talk for saying, I don’t get paid my fee until you win your case. If you do win, then my fee is a percentage of the total settlement/award. If you don’t win, or you decide not to pursue the case, you do not owe me any unpaid fees (although you may be responsible for costs which haven’t been reimbursed).
Learn more about Accidents in California
To help you better understand motor vehicle accidents and the numerous questions and issues involved, I’ve collected answers to some of the most frequently asked questions that I run into as a car accident lawyer:
Frequently Asked Questions About California Car Accidents
- California auto insurance explained
- Uber and Lyft Car Accident Lawyer
- Arguments insurance companies use against you
- Rear-End Car Accidents in California
- Most common injuries after a car accident in California
- Tinnitus After a Car Accident
- How Auto Insurance Claims Adjusters Evaluate Your Injury Claim
- Proposition 213 and California Car Accidents
- Breast implant damage after a car accident
- Insurance Policy Limits in California
- Mitigation of damages after a California car accident
California Civil Code 3281 ↩
California Civil Code 3282 ↩
California Civil Code 3359 ↩
California Civil Code 3283 ↩
California Civil Code 1714(a ↩
Medicare Secondary Payer Act ↩
California Code of Civil Procedure 335.1 ↩
California Civil Code 2872 ↩
California Civil Code 3333 ↩