Joint and several liability is the legal doctrine that each defendant in a personal injury claim may be held responsible for all the victim’s economic damages, even if multiple defendants were responsible for the accident. The law allows the victim to get compensation after an accident even if each defendant alone does not have enough money to cover its share of the damages.
In a California personal injury lawsuit, multiple wrongdoers are held jointly responsible for economic damages. However, each defendant is separately responsible for their share of 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 an injured person 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 has been around a very long time. It is intended to protect injured parties from being unable to collect compensation after they are injured and 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 does not have the financial resources to compensate you, that you can pursue the other wrongful party 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 both liable parties, and obtain a full judgment against them both 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, but are only severally (separately) responsible for your non-economic damages in proportion to their percentage of fault.
The attorneys at the Shouse Law Group will help you through every step of your personal injury case, including collecting your award.
Economic damages are those that are suffered by the injured person to which a dollar amount can definitively be attached. Economic losses cover “out of pocket” expenses the injured person has actually spent or will spend in the future.
Monetary losses include (but are not limited to):
- Medical bills for the plaintiff’s 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 concluded, and you have successfully proven your damages, any one of the parties can be responsible for the full amount.
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 the 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 (“proportionate share”) which corresponds to their degree of fault (“in direct proportion to the defendants’ liability”).
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 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 of $250,000 on pain and suffering damages in these types of cases.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.
Call us for help…
For questions about filing a personal injury lawsuit, the impacts of joint and several liability, or to confidentially discuss your case with one of our skilled California personal injury attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at the Shouse Law Group. We can usually achieve high settlement amounts without a trial.
We have local law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
- Legal Information Institute. Joint and Several Liability. Also learn about principles of comparative fault and comparative negligence, product liability, and vicarious liability.
- Cal. Civ. Code § 1431; Cal. Civ. Code § 1431.2.
- See footnote 2.
- California Civil Code 3333.2(b).
- Thomas v. Duggins Const. Co., Inc., 139 Cal.App.4th 1105, 1112-1113 (2006).