California has a “joint and several liability” law for personal injury lawsuits. This law says that each defendant (person being sued) can be held fully responsible for paying all of the economic damages awarded, even if there are other defendants who were also partially at fault. The purpose is to make sure injury victims get fully compensated, even if some defendants don’t have enough money individually to cover their share of the damages.
Here are five key things to know:
- Under California negligence laws, multiple wrongdoers can be held jointly responsible for your economic damages.
- However, each defendant is separately responsible for his or her individual share of non-economic damages.
- Non-economic damages include hard-to-calculate injuries such as pain and suffering, loss of consortium, and emotional distress.
- Non-economic damages are not capped except for pain and suffering in medical malpractice cases.
- In cases involving intentional injuries, joint and severability laws apply to both economic and non-economic damages.
Below, our California personal injury attorneys address frequently asked questions about joint and several liability cases and how it may affect your case:
- 1. What is joint and several liability?
- 2. When are parties jointly and severally liable for my injuries?
- 3. When are parties not jointly and severally liable?
The doctrine of joint and several liability means that you can go after multiple people who caused the injury for the entire judgment, even when one person may have only caused a small percentage of your injury. It would then be up to the person who only caused a small amount of harm to go after the other wrongful parties for reimbursement. 1
This legal doctrine is intended to protect you from being unable to collect compensation after you are injured. It puts the responsibility of determining the percentage of fault on the parties who injured you.
This helps to guarantee that even if the main party at fault is poor, insolvent, or judgment-proof, you can pursue the other wrongful party with deep pockets for your damages.
When you sue multiple people (“joint tortfeasors”) for your injuries, it is not necessary that they caused your harm in the exact same way. What matters is that the combined conduct of the multiple people creates a single, indivisible harm.
If you have suffered harm because of their combined actions, you can file a lawsuit against all liable parties. If successful, you would obtain a full judgment against all of them for your economic damages.
California has adopted a modified version of the old common law version of joint and several liability.
California law states that multiple parties may be jointly responsible for the entire amount of your economic damages. However, multiple parties are only severally (separately) responsible for your non-economic damages in proportion to their percentage of fault.2
Economic damages are “out-of-pocket” expenses that are easy to calculate:
- Medical bills for your injury,
- Future medical expenses,
- Cost of rehabilitation or other treatment,
- Property damage,
- Loss of income, and
- Lost earning capacity.
If multiple parties caused your injuries, they will each be responsible for the entire amount of your economic damages. This means that once your trial has finished, and you have proven your damages, any one of the parties can be responsible for the full amount of damages.
Example: John was injured in a car accident which was caused by two separate drivers, Carol and Frank, acting negligently. At trial, the jury found that John’s injuries should be compensated with $155,000 in economic damages. John can get the entire $155,000.00 from either Carol or Frank, regardless of their percentage of fault. It is up to the two of them to fight over paying the fair share through a later contribution action.
Contribution is a separate legal action brought between the multiple parties who caused the injury. When one party is held responsible for the entirety of the economic damages, that party can sue the remaining parties for their percentage of fault.
However, contribution is not available when one party intentionally causes injury, unless other parties also intentionally caused the injury.
This is not an action in which you have to be involved: It is only between the parties who caused your injury.
If the case goes to trial, it will be the “trier of fact” who will determine the percentage of fault each party had when causing the injury. The trier of fact is the jury if it is a jury trial, or the judge if it is a “bench trial.”
In the contribution action, the parties can sue for money from each other in an amount that corresponds to their degree of fault.
Example: In John’s case as described above, the jury found that Carol was 35% responsible for causing the accident and that Frank was 65% responsible for causing the accident. John collects all of his economic damages from Carol. Carol can file a contribution action against Frank to require him to pay 65% of the total damages.
Multiple parties which caused an injury will not be held joint and severally liable for non-economic damages under California law. 3 This means that each party will only be liable for the amount of non-economic damages which corresponds to its percentage apportionment of fault, as determined by the judge or jury.
As a result, a party could be held responsible for 100% of the economic damages while only being responsible for the assigned percentage of fault for non-economic damages.
Non-economic damages include those types of damages which do not necessarily involve out-of-pocket expenses. They are often more subjective and more difficult to assign a specific monetary value to except that value determined by the judge or jury.
Defendants may have liability for non-economic damages, including (but not limited to):
- Pain and suffering,
- Loss of consortium,
- Emotional distress,
- Physical impairment (such as loss of the use of a limb or organ),
- Inconvenience, and
- Loss of life enjoyment.
California does not place caps on non-economic damages in personal injury cases the way many states do. This means that whatever fair and reasonable value of non-economic damages the jury finds will generally be the amount the several parties will have to pay for the injuries they caused.
The exception, however, is with medical malpractice cases. There is a cap on your damages for pain and suffering in these types of cases.
As of January 1, 2023, the cap for wrongful death cases is $500,000. Then each new year, the cap increases by $50,000 until it reaches $1 million.
For non-wrongful death cases, the cap is $350,000. Then each new year, the cap increases by $40,000 until it reaches $750,000.4
Each responsible party will only be obligated to pay the amount of non-economic damages which corresponds to their percentage of fault. Unlike economic damages, you may not collect the whole sum from one party.
Example: Continuing with John’s example, the jury also decided that he should be awarded $100,000. Remember that the jury determined that Carol was 35% responsible for the accident and that Frank was 65% responsible. This means that Carol can only be required to pay $35,000 of the non-economic damage award, not the entire $100,000.
The rule that joint and several liability will not apply to non-economic damages only applies to negligence cases. When the personal injury occurred as a result of intentional acts of multiple parties, joint and several liability will apply to all parties for both types of damages.5
Example: Harrison is beaten up by Lloyd and Drake. Harrison files a battery lawsuit against the two for his injuries. The jury finds that Harrison is entitled to $40,000 in economic damages and $60,000 in non-economic damages. Harrison can get the entire $100,000 damages award from either Drake or Lloyd.
- Legal Information Institute. Joint and Several Liability. Also learn about principles of comparative fault and comparative negligence, product liability, and vicarious liability. See also B.B. v. County of Los Angeles, (2020) 10 Cal. 5th 1, 471 P.3d 329.
- CACI No. 3933. Damages From Multiple Defendants; CACI No. 406. Apportionment of Responsibility; Cal. Civ. Code § 1431.2; see also People v. Koenig, (2020) 58 Cal. App. 5th 771, 272 Cal. Rptr. 3d 732; Dafonte v. Up-Right (1992) 2 Cal.4th 593; Carr v. Cove (1973) 33 Cal.App.3d 851; Myrick v. Mastagni (2010) 185 Cal.App.4th 1082; Romine v. Johnson Controls, Inc. (2014) 224 Cal.App.4th 990; Bayer-Bel v. Litovsky (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 396; Scott v. C. R. Bard, Inc. (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 763; Wilson v. Ritto (2003) 105 Cal.App.4th 361; Taylor v. John Crane, Inc. (2003) 113 Cal.App.4th 1063; Vollaro v. Lispi (2014) 224 Cal.App.4th 93; Pfeifer v. John Crane, Inc. (2013) 220 Cal.App.4th 1270;American Motorcycle Assn. v. Superior Court (1978) 20 Cal.3d 578; Stewart v. Union Carbide Corp. (2010) 190 Cal.App.4th 23. Note that some other states have adopted a pure rule of several liability. This is where each defendant only pays for whatever percentage of damages they are at fault for.
- See footnote 2. See also Goodman v. Lozano, (2010) 223 P.3d 77, 47 Cal.4th 1327, 104 Cal.Rptr.3d 219 (In partial settlements, non-settling defendants should get asetoff of judgments which they are jointly and severally liable for.)
- California Civil Code 3333.2(b). Assembly Bill 35 (2022).
- Thomas v. Duggins Const. Co., Inc., 139 Cal.App.4th 1105, 1112-1113 (2006).