Fault & Damages in a Head-on Collision Lawsuit

Liability in a head-on collision depends on if either or both drivers were negligent at the time of the accident. Negligence in a head-on collision may involve distracted driving, failure to yield, or drunk driving. The at-fault driver in a head-on collision in California may be liable to any injured drivers, passengers, or pedestrians for medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

Below, our California personal injury lawyers discuss the following frequently asked questions about head-on collisions in California:

If you have further questions after reading this article, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

Head on car crash
The at-fault driver in a head-on collision in California may be liable to any injured drivers, passengers, or pedestrians for medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

1. Who is at fault in a head-on collision in California?

Fault in a head-on collision depends on negligence. Negligence in a motor vehicle accident can be a complicated question and may depend on whether one or multiple drivers were:

  • Violating a traffic law, like speeding; 1
  • Driving while distracted;
  • Texting and driving; 2
  • Operating an unsafe vehicle; or
  • Driving without using reasonable care.3

In general, the driver who is at fault in an accident is liable for damages. Even if both drivers have insurance, the driver who is at fault may be responsible for paying for any damages that exceed their insurance liability limits.

Negligence in a car accident lawsuit may be a question for the jury to determine. The jury could also determine that both parties were partly responsible for the accident. If more than one party is responsible for the accident, the injured driver and passengers can still get a portion of their damages based on the level of fault.

2. What damages are available in a head-on accident lawsuit?

The driver and/or passengers injured in a head-on collision can recover damages through filing a personal injury lawsuit in California. This includes both economic and non-economic compensatory damages. Compensatory damages are for the losses caused by the accident and can include:

In some cases, the plaintiff may be able to sue for punitive damages, or “exemplary damages.” Punitive damages are not based on the plaintiff's losses but instead is based on the defendant's wrongful conduct. Punitive damages may be available when the other driver acted with extreme recklessness or intentionally caused harm. There is no cap on punitive damages in a personal injury lawsuit in California.4

3. Which driver is at fault in a head-on collision?

Fault is determined by California's negligence laws. Generally, the negligent party is liable for any injuries and damages caused to another. In order to recover damages after a car accident, the plaintiff generally needs to show the defendant was negligent.

In California, the elements of negligence in a car accident include:

  1. The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care;
  2. The defendant breached that duty of care through negligence; and
  3. The defendant's negligence was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff's injuries or death.5

The duty of care in California is the basic standard of care that all drivers must follow when operating a vehicle. Failure to use reasonable care when driving is negligence. The standard of care requires drivers to:

  • Use reasonable care in driving a vehicle;
  • Keep a lookout for pedestrians, obstacles, and other vehicle; and
  • Control the speed and movement of the vehicle.6

In a head-on collision lawsuit, the plaintiff could show that the defendant was negligent because the defendant was not looking out for another vehicle or did not control the speed or movement of his or her vehicle.

Examples of negligence in a head-on collision may include:

Dangerous Left Turns and U-Turns

Making a left turn in front of oncoming traffic is a common cause of head-on collisions in California. This could include making a turn at a controlled intersection or where left turns have to yield to oncoming traffic.

Under California's “right-of-way” laws, drivers are required to yield the right-of-way to all vehicles approaching from the opposite direction until the turning vehicle can make the turn reasonable safety. If a driver does not yield the right-of-way and causes a head-on collision, the driver may be liable for any injuries or damages.78

Example: Declan is driving down the 138 in Palmdale and is about to make a left turn from the turn lane. Traffic is heavy and no other driver is stopping to let Declan cross. Cars are lining up behind Declan waiting to turn and one of the drivers keeps honking at Declan to make the turn.

Finally, Declan sees a small space between cars. There is not much room to make the turn but Declan figures the oncoming driver will slow down once he starts to cross.

Declan turns in front of oncoming traffic but miscalculated the speed and distance of the cars. The oncoming driver hits the brakes but still hits Declan's car. Both drivers are injured in the accident.

Declan may have been negligent in causing the head-on collision. If Declan did not yield the right-of-way and did not wait until it was safe to make the turn, Declan may have been negligent. If Declan was negligent, Declan may be liable to the other driver for damages.

4. Head-On Collision Injuries

Head-on collisions are among the most dangerous types of vehicle accidents. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), head-on crashes make up 13% of all fatal car accidents in rural areas. In urban areas, head-on collisions account for 7% of fatal accidents.9

In California in 2014, there were more than 3,000 traffic fatalities. There were a total of more than 296,000 traffic collisions in 2014, with more than 17,000 accidents involving head-on collisions.1011

5. Can I still get damages if I was partly to blame for the accident?

In some states, if one person is partly to blame for the accident, that person cannot recover damages from another. However, California is a “comparative fault” state. This means that even if you were partly to blame for the accident, you may be eligible for damages.

Under California's “comparative fault” law, fault can be attributed to multiple parties. An injured victim can recover damages based on the percentage of fault attributed to the defendants.

For example, if Driver A and Driver B are involved in a head-on collision, the jury may determine the negligence of each driver. The jury finds Driver A 90% at-fault for the accident and Driver B is 10% at-fault for the accident. Even though Driver B is partly responsible, Driver B may still be able to recover 90% of the damages from Driver A because of California's comparative fault laws.

Example: Ezra is making a left hand turn onto Bridge Street in Moreno Valley. There is a lot of traffic on the way home from work and it always takes a long time to get a clear shot to make the turn.

Flora is driving the opposite direction and is in a hurry to get home. Flora is going about 60 miles per hour even though the speed limit is 55 MPH but everyone speeds on this road.

Ezra is fiddling around with his phone and looks up quickly to see an opening. He turns but did not estimate his turn well and crashes into Flora. Both Ezra and Flora are injured and their vehicles are totaled.

Flora files a lawsuit against Ezra for damages. A jury hears the evidence in the case and finds that Ezra was 80% negligent in causing the accident because he was driving while distracted and did not yield the right of way. However, the jury also determined that Flora was 20% negligent because she was speeding at the time.

If Flora suffers $50,000 in damages, Flora may be able to recover $40,000 from Ezra, representing 80% of the total damages.

6. What should I do if I was hit by another driver who did not have insurance?

Drivers in California are required to carry a minimum level of insurance coverage, that includes liability minimums for:

  • $15,000 for injury/death to one person.
  • $30,000 for injury/death to more than one person.
  • $5,000 for damage to property.12

However, some people drive without insurance in violation of the law. If you get into an accident with an uninsured driver you may have to file a lawsuit against the uninsured driver to recover damages. Unfortunately, the driver may not have the money or assets to cover your damages.

Uninsured and underinsured motorist (UMC/UIM) coverage is optional insurance coverage that pays for damages when another driver is at fault for the accident, but either:

  • Does not have automobile insurance, or
  • The at-fault driver's policy does not have enough coverage to pay for the injured party's damages.

Many drivers only consider UMC/UIM coverage out of concern for uninsured drivers. However, in a serious head-on collision, the state's minimum coverage level may not be enough to cover the injured driver or passengers.

7. Do I need a lawyer after a head-on collision in California?

Most people think that because they have car insurance, their auto insurance company will take care of everything after a car accident. However, drivers who have had to deal with the insurance company after an accident understand how frustrating it can be. The insurance company is a business and not a personal advocate for drivers in their time of need.

By contacting an experienced automobile accident lawyer after an accident, drivers and passengers will have an advocate whose job is to act on their behalf. A California car accident lawyer understands personal injury and automobile accident law and will work to get you fully compensated for your injuries.

Before talking to the other driver's insurance company or sign any settlement, individuals injured in an accident should consider talking to a lawyer to make sure they are not being taken advantage of. An experienced California traffic accident attorney will deal with the insurance company and uncover all the evidence in to make sure their clients get fully compensated for an accident.

8. Can I file a lawsuit if my spouse or partner was killed in a head-on collision?

Head-on collisions can be fatal. Statistically, head-on collisions only represent a fraction of car accidents but have a higher rate of fatalities.13 If a child, spouse, or parent was killed in a head-on collision the surviving family members may be able to file a lawsuit under California's wrongful death laws.

In a wrongful death lawsuit, surviving family members can file a claim for damages in California, including:

  • Spouse or domestic partner;
  • Children;
  • Grandchildren (if the individual's children are deceased); or
  • Anyone else who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by California intestate succession laws.14

The damages available in a wrongful death lawsuit can include the losses suffered by the family members after the death of a loved one. These may include:

  • Funeral expenses,
  • Burial expenses,
  • Loss of earnings the victim would have earned, and
  • Compensation for the loss of companionship, affection, and support.
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Call us for help...

For questions about head-on motor vehicle accident claims in California or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our skilled California personal injury attorneys, please contact us at Shouse Law Group.

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 References:

  1. California Vehicle Code 22350 (“No person shall drive a vehicle upon a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable or prudent having due regard for weather, visibility, the traffic on, and the surface and width of, the highway, and in no event at a speed which endangers the safety of persons or property.”)
  2. California Vehicle Code 23123.5(a) (“A person shall not drive a motor vehicle while holding and operating a handheld wireless telephone or an electronic wireless communications device unless the wireless telephone or electronic wireless communications device is specifically designed and configured to allow voice-operated and hands-free operation, and it is used in that manner while driving.”)
  3. CACI 700. Basic Standard of Care. (“A person must use reasonable care in driving a vehicle. Drivers must keep a lookout for pedestrians, obstacles, and other vehicles. They must also control the speed and movement of their vehicles. The failure to use reasonable care in driving a vehicle is negligence.“)
  4. California Civil Code § 3294 (“(a) In an action for the breach of an obligation not arising from contract, where it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice, the plaintiff, in addition to the actual damages, may recover damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant.“)
  5. See, e.g., California Civil Jury Instructions ("CACI") 400. See also California Civil Code section 1714(a) (“Everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person.”)
  6. CACI 700. Basic Standard of Care, see footnote 3 above.
  7. California Vehicle Code 21801 (“(a) The driver of a vehicle intending to turn to the left or to complete a U-turn upon a highway, or to turn left into public or private property, or an alley, shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles approaching from the opposite direction which are close enough to constitute a hazard at any time during the turning movement, and shall continue to yield the right-of-way to the approaching vehicles until the left turn or U-turn can be made with reasonable safety. (b) A driver having yielded as prescribed in subdivision (a), and having given a signal when and as required by this code, may turn left or complete a U-turn, and the drivers of vehicles approaching the intersection or the entrance to the property or alley from the opposite direction shall yield the right-of-way to the turning vehicle.”)
  8. CACI 704. Left Turns. See also CACI 705. Turning (“A driver must use reasonable care when turning or moving to the right or to the left.”)
  9. NHTSA Traffic Safety Facts 2005 (DOT HS 810 625)
  10. California Office of Traffic Safety, California Traffic Safety Quick Stats.
  11. California Highway Patrol Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System (SWITRS) 2014 Report.
  12. California Insurance Code 11580.1b
  13. NHTSA Traffic Safety Facts 2005 (DOT HS 810 625), see footnotes 9, 10, and 11 above.
  14. California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 (“A cause of action for the death of a person caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another may be asserted by any of the following persons or by the decedent's personal representative on their behalf: (a) The decedent's surviving spouse, domestic partner, children, and issue of deceased children, or, if there is no surviving issue of the decedent, the persons, including the surviving spouse or domestic partner, who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession.”)

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