Joint and several liability, a very important part of personal injury actions, was created to protect the injured. Joint and several liability applies in situations when two or more defendants can be held responsible for plaintiff’s injuries. Two elements need to exist for joint and several liability to apply: (1) at least two parties acted negligently; and (2) each party acted negligently which resulted in plaintiff’s injuries.
Under joint and several liability, each defendant is jointly [individually] responsible for all economic damages awarded in favor of plaintiff, regardless of the percentage of fault found against any particular defendant. What does this mean and why is it important? Here is an example:
One evening, a pedestrian is struck by a motorist while crossing the street. The pedestrian was in a crosswalk but there was no traffic signal at this particular intersection. The pedestrian has $50,000 in medical bills, and $50,000 in lost income. Medical bills and lost income are called ‘economic damages’ because they are objectively verifiable monetary losses. Hence, he has a total of $100,000 in economic damages.
According to this scenario, there are two possible parties who can be held responsible for the pedestrian’s injuries. The motorist may be responsible for failing to yield the right of way to the pedestrian and the City may be responsible for failing to place a traffic light at the intersection. The pedestrian has three options to sue: (1) he can choose to sue the motorist and collect all of his damages from the motorist alone; (2) he can choose to sue the City and collect all of his damages from the City alone; or (3) he can sue both in one lawsuit and collect damages according to each defendant’s ability to pay. The pedestrian chooses the best option [number 3], which is to sue both the motorist and the City.
At trial, the jury allocates 99% of fault to the motorist and 1% of fault to the City. However, the motorist is uninsured. Is the pedestrian out of luck and can he collect his damages? This is where joint and several liability helps the pedestrian.
The motorist’s uninsured status does not affect the pedestrian’s ability to collect his economic damages because the City, who was also found to be at fault, is jointly liable for all of the pedestrian’s economic damages. This means that the pedestrian can collect all of his economic damages, totaling $100,000, from the City.
However, it is important to note that the City is not jointly liable for the pedestrian’s ‘non-economic damages’, which are subjective, non-monetary losses, such as pain, suffering, emotional distress, loss of society and companionship, injury to reputation and humiliation. Instead, it is responsible only for the amount of non-economic damages allocated to it in direct proportion to the City’s percentage of fault. Hence, if the jury awards the pedestrian general damages of $200,000 for pain and suffering, the City is only responsible for 1% or $2,000 of the general damages.
Generally referred to as Proposition 51 amongst experienced trial attorneys, joint and several liability was made into law in 1986 and codified under California Civil Code, §1431. Experienced attorneys often use joint and several liability to their advantage when litigating cases against parties claiming limited liability. Hence, if you are involved in a lawsuit with multiple defendants and have high economic damages, the services of an attorney become invaluable. This article strictly talks about California law. Laws in other states may differ. This article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to serve as legal advice. You should always contact an attorney to discuss any legal matter.
If you have a personal injury case, such as an accident, slip and fall, dog bite, etc., and want to get an honest assessment of your case, please contact Personal Injury Attorney Mason Rashtian of The Mason Law Firm. He will educate you as to your options.
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