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What do damages and negligence mean in California?

Californians can sue for damages caused by someone else’s negligence. Of course, what California means by damages, negligence and related terms may not be always obvious.

To confuse matters even more, other states use the same words, but their laws often handle damages very differently. It might help to have a quick and dirty guide to some of these ideas in California.

Duty of care

Laws require people to try to avoid hurting those around them. Californians have a duty to care about what happens to others.

Your “duty of care” is a little different in different situations. Cashiers, bus drivers and surgeons face different duties of care while doing their jobs, for example.

Negligence and fault

When a person fails to live up to their duty of care in a reasonable way given the situation, they are “negligent.”

This can be hard to define exactly, but the law usually expects normal people in the same kind of situation to prevent injuries by dangers they probably should expect.

For example, looking both ways before push a baby stroller across a busy street is reasonable. Someone who fails to look both ways is negligent and is “at fault” for a crash between the baby stroller and a car.

Negligence is not always simple

In real life, nobody can focus on all their duties of care to everybody all the time. Almost everyone is usually a little negligent.

In the baby stroller situation, the person driving the car that hit the stroller might have quickly glanced at their cellphone at the worst possible moment. So, the driver would also be negligent and at fault.

Comparative negligence in California

In California, the jury in a civil case compares the fault of everyone involved.

For example, they might decide the driver is 90% at fault, maybe because they looked at their cellphone, and they were drunk, and they blew a red light.

Yes, the person pushing the stroller could have been more careful by looking both ways, but not everyone expects drunks to blow red lights while looking at their cellphones. So, the jury might find them to be 10% at fault.

If the jury thinks the harm to the baby and the parent is worth $1 million, the award they would get would be $900,000. The reason is that the driver (or the driver’s insurance company) is not entirely at fault.

The person pushing the stroller gets the $1 million minus 10% for their share of the fault.

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