In personal injury cases, more than one party is often responsible for causing the victim’s injury. So what then will it mean for the involved victim? Who, among the responsible parties, will they sue for damages? In California state, the joint and several liability doctrines address this issue. Read on to find out how the principle works.

What Joint and Several Liability Is

The joint and several liability doctrines mean an injured victim can sue multiple parties that caused them the injuries for damages, irrespective of their corresponding percentages of fault. That is, one party might have only contributed to the victim’s injuries or losses by a small extent and the other parties by a higher percentage, but the victim decides to sue all of them. It then would be upon the party that only contributed slightly to the injuries to file a lawsuit against the other liable parties for compensation. It is important to note that for the joint and several liability doctrines to apply, two or more parties must have been negligent, and every party’s actions or negligence must have caused the victim’s injury. And then, the responsible parties, also called tortfeasors, could be jointly and severally liable.

This legal principle has been in place for an extended period. Its purpose is to protect hurt victims from being incapable of recovering compensation after being injured in a personal injury case. It places the burden of establishing the degree of fault upon the parties that hurt the victim. This helps warrant that even when the major liable party is judgment-proof, insolvent, or poor, the victim can sue the other at-fault parties with a considerable fortune for compensation.

California’s joint and several liability law is a modified version of the old common law. The law provides that multiple parties can be held jointly liable for the victim’s entire value of economic (special) damages but only severally (separately) responsible for the non-economic (general) damages in share of their extent of guilt.

Other states use the pure version of several liability whereby each at-fault party will only pay compensation to the degree of their proportional guilt for the injuries. For instance, in Georgia, if an injured victim is partly liable for a collision, but their responsibility is below fifty percent, the total liability is lowered, but each responsible party is only liable to the degree they are guilty of causing the crash. For instance, a defendant who is sixty percent to blame when the entire damages are a hundred thousand dollars is accountable for sixty thousand dollars. If that defendant is judgment-proof and insured, the victim will not receive in the sixty thousand dollars.

Some states like Delaware and Alabama follow the pure joint and several liability rules. This means if a victim of a multi-car accident is awarded 100,000 dollars in damages against four liable parties that are jointly and severally liable, each of which the jury assigned 25 percent of the guilt, the victim can try collecting the entire 100,000 dollars from any of the tortfeasors. The victim may collect the 100,000 dollars from a tortfeasor possessing substantial assets or is fully insured. That tortfeasor can then pursue contributions from the other defendants.

Some of the states that typically apply the several liability rule use joint and several liability in situations where liable parties act jointly to hurt the victim. Some states like Florida and California take a middle-of-the-road, variable, hybrid perspective. If a victim in California settles with one of the defendants, the defendant who chooses to settle waives their right to contribute from other defendants. Although, the remaining defendants have the right to a setoff of the settlement value. This implies the settlement value will be deducted from any compensation award by the court.

Joint and several liability differs from comparative fault law, whereby several parties are allocated liability for a share of the compensation amount concerning the percentage of guilt they bear for the injury. Under comparative fault law, a victim may be left in the position of pursuing damages from the party that is least capable of paying. Comparative negligence is sometimes referred to as pure several liability and is more commonly applied than joint and several liability.

The Tortfeasors Need Not Have Hurt You In a Similar Way

When pursuing multiple parties for compensation after a personal injury accident, the parties need not have caused your injury in the same precise manner. What counts is their combined behavior results in a single, indivisible injury.

If you suffered an injury due to the tortfeasors' combined actions, you could sue all of them and recover the whole amount of economic damages.

How Special Damages Are Shared Among Multiple Liable Parties

Economic damages refer to those the victim suffers and to which it is much easier to attach a definitive dollar amount. Economic damages usually offset out-of-pocket costs the victim already has incurred or will incur in the coming days. Examples of monetary losses are, without limitation:

  • Loss of present or future earning capacity
  • Lost income
  • Property damage
  • Cost of rehab or other treatments
  • Medical expenses for the complainant’s injuries and losses
  • Future medical bills

If several parties caused you injuries in a personal injury case, they would be liable for the whole value of your special damages. This implies that any at-fault party could be liable for the entire compensation amount if you successfully prove your special damages by the end of your trial.

Consider this example: Mercy was hurt in an auto crash in which two distinct drivers were to blame, Stanley and Christy, acting negligently. During the trial, the court found that Mercy’s injuries are worth $200,000 compensation in special damages. She can obtain the whole $200,000 from either Christy or Stanley, irrespective of their degree of guilt. It is then upon Christy and Stanely to determine how each will pay a fair share by bringing a contribution action.

Contribution Action

Contribution action is a distinct legal action filed between the several liable parties in an accident. When only one of the parties is held liable for the whole value of economic damages, the party can then sue the other responsible defendants for their degree of fault. But contribution action is usually not an option when a single party deliberately causes injuries unless other defendants also purposely caused those injuries. The victim needs not be a party to a contribution action. It is solely among the parties responsible for the accident that caused the victim's injuries.

Contribution is Different From Indemnity

Generally, contribution and indemnity address the extent of the fault of several parties and their liability for paying compensation to the complainant, but there is a slight difference.

A contribution action allows one liable party to sue the other parties for a share of the entire compensation amount. This is an ideal option for the defendant, who is partly to blame and wishes that the other liable parties pay for their portion of the compensation amount. For instance, if driver A and B cause an accident that causes driver C to sustain injuries, driver C may decide to sue only driver A. If driver C wins against driver A, driver A can sue driver B to pay for part of the compensation amount because they were both to blame.

Indemnity permits a liable party to sue the other guilty parties for the whole compensation amount. However, indemnity is only an option where the responsible party is entirely not to blame for the accident. Consider this example: a waiter hits a customer, and the customer files a suit against the restaurant and wins ten thousand dollars in compensation. The restaurant could sue the waiter for the entire ten thousand dollars, as it was the waiter's fault for punching the customer.

But remember that for all the actions, the facts should support the lawsuit. Whereas this point appears obvious, it is sufficient to warrant a case dismissal.

Determination of Liability in Joint and Several Liability Cases

Should your personal injury case go to the trial stage, it is upon the finder of facts to determine the degree of guilt each party possessed when they caused the accident. The finder of facts is the judge in a bench trial or jury in a jury trial. In a contribution action, liable parties can pursue the contribution of settlement value from one another in a value (proportionate share) corresponding to their percentage of guilt (in direct proportion to the respondent’s fault).

For instance, in Mercy’s case above, the court established that Christy was 40% to blame for the accident while Stanley was 60% responsible. Mercy collects the value of all her special damages from Christy. Christy can bring legal action against Stanley to demand he contributes 60% of the damages.

When Joint and Several Liability is an Exception

Several parties that caused your injuries are not considered jointly and severally responsible for general damages per California statute. This means every party is only accountable for the value of general damages corresponding to their percentage allocation of guilt as established by the jury or judge.

Consequently, a party may be held liable for 100 percent of the special damages and only be liable for the allocated percentage of guilt for general damages.

What Comprises General Damages?

General Damages comprise the losses that do not automatically entail out-of-pocket costs. They are usually more subjective. It is also more challenging to allocate a definite dollar value until the jury or judge does the calculations.

Defendants may be liable for general damages, including, though without limitations:

  • Inconvenience
  • Disfigurement
  • Physical impairment, for instance, loss of function of an organ or limb
  • Emotional distress
  • Lost consortium
  • Pain and suffering
  • Mental anguish
  • Lost enjoyment of life.

Unlike most states, California law does not put caps (limitations) on general damages obtained in personal injury-related cases. This means whatever just and reasonable amount of general damages the court finds will be the value the multiple parties will need to reimburse for the injury they caused.

However, an exception is medical malpractice suits. There exists a limit of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars on the complainant's non-economic damages in these kinds of cases.

How Non-Economic Damages Are Collected or Divided

Each liable party is only mandated to pay the value of general damages corresponding to their degree of guilt. Unlike special damages, you might not recover the entire sum of your general damages from a single party.

Consider this: continuing with Mercy's example, the court also ruled that she should recover 150,000 dollars in general damages. Remember, the jury established that Christy was 40% liable for the collision while Stanely was 60% liable. This means Christy will only be obligated to pay 40% of the general damages, which is $60,000, and not 150,000 dollars. Stanely will then be required to pay the remaining 60%, which is $90,000.

Note that the provision stating that joint and several liability is not applicable to general damages will only apply to negligence-related cases. If the injury occurred due to intentional actions of several parties, joint and several liability applies to all the parties for both general and special damages.

Consider this example: Dave and Leo ambush Chris and beat him up on his way home. Chris accuses the two of battery and files a lawsuit for the injuries he suffered. The jury rules that Chris should be awarded $50,000 in special damages and $70,000 in general damages. Chris can collect the entire $120,000 compensation value from Dave or Leo because their act was intentional.

Why Various States Use the Joint and Several Liability Doctrine

Joint and several liability serves an invaluable purpose. That is why various states apply it. It lowers the risk of the plaintiff walking away with nothing in compensation when one or several of the tortfeasors is judgment-proof.

By judgment proof, it means that the plaintiff cannot collect the compensation awarded from a given liable party since they do not have assets. Joint and several liability keeps the burden of an uninsured or insolvent tortfeasor away from the hurt complainant. Instead, it shifts the risk to other tortfeasors since they also share some liability for the personal injury accident.

Note that all liable parties can fall within the judgment-proof category, although this rarely happens. If all responsible parties fall within the judgment-proof category, the complainant would be incapable of recovering damages for their injury and losses. In many cases, however, at least a single liable party possibly possesses some assets or insurance that will compensate for the loss.

Joint and several liability also leads to speedy dispute resolution among parties. Once the jury determines liability, the plaintiff can claim compensation outright or proportionately from a tortfeasor who is competent to pay in full (in a case where other tortfeasors are insolvent or do not have financial means).

Also, because of joint and several liability clauses, plaintiffs can directly sue the tortfeasors with the good financial ability to make good all the losses they suffered.

Lastly, joint and several liability is founded on the theory that tortfeasors are sufficient to establish the portion of liability or pay compensation to the victim within themselves. The victim does not have to be part of the litigation process once liability is determined internally by the liable parties.

Downsides of the Joint and Several Liability Doctrine

There are some disadvantages of the joint and several liability principle. One argument that experts have put forward is the possibility that it can lead to severe inequalities. A good instance is a liable party with only ten percent to blame but jointly and severally liable with a party with ninety percent to blame, yet might have the full monetary responsibility fall on him should the ninety percent liable party be judgment-proof.

Also, parties that do not have anything to do with the victim's injury will be subject to financial responsibility to a given extent. If the whole group is held accountable for the victim's injury and one part of the group fails to make payments, the entire group would have to pay more than their initial share, so they do not default.

Another disadvantage of joint and several liability is that a reasonable division of the amount is usually not possible because of the joint contribution of the compensation amount.

Find a Competent Personal Injury Attorney Near Me who Understands the Joint and Several Liability Concept

The California personal injury law is intricate, and understanding and navigating it could be even more challenging if dealing with complications like multiple liable parties. Advice from a skilled personal injury lawyer can help you maximize your compensation in a personal injury lawsuit. If you have been injured intentionally or in an accident in Los Angeles and feel other parties may be to blame, please reach out to the expert attorneys at Los Angeles Personal Injury Attorney today at 424-231-2013 for a cost-free consultation and case evaluation. If more than one party is liable for your injuries, we will fight to ensure the court applies the joint and several liability rules to the fullest and that you receive the compensation you deserve.