California Car Accident Laws

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R.E. Fulton
· 5 min read
If you’re in a car accident in
, state law requires you to file reports with the police and the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). You’ll be able to claim damages through your insurance or a personal injury lawsuit in accordance with your level of fault. 
  • If you’re involved in a car accident in California, you’ll need to report the accident to the police, the DMV, and your insurance company.
  • California is one of 12 states that follow a pure comparative negligence rule, also known as pure comparative fault.
  • Under the state of California’s Civil Code, you have the right to file a personal injury lawsuit to claim economic and non-economic damages related to a car crash.

What to do after a crash: California car accident reporting laws

The first thing to do after any car accident
is to make sure that you and anyone else in your vehicle are safe. Move the vehicle to a safe spot nearby the location of the crash, check for injuries, and call 911 if anyone involved in the crash was hurt. 
It’s also important to document the crash in any way you can— especially with photographic evidence—and exchange insurance information with the other party. 
But what happens next? If you’re in California, you may need to report the accident three separate times: 
  • To the police
  • To the DMV
  • To your insurance company 

Do I need to report a car accident to the California police?

In some cases, yes, you will need to notify law enforcement after an accident in California.
Section 20008
of the California Vehicle Code lays out the specifics: 
  • Injuries or death: If anyone was injured (even slightly) or killed in the accident, you must report it to the California Highway Patrol within 24 hours.
  • Outside of a city: If the accident occurred on a public highway outside of a city, you must file a report with the California Highway Patrol.
  • In the city: If the accident took place in a city, you can report it to the highway patrol or to the city’s police.
Keep in mind: If police showed up at the scene of the accident, you don’t need to file a report; the officers who responded will already have filed their own accident report. 

Do I need to report a car accident to the California DMV?

In addition to filing a police report,
Section 16000
of the California Vehicle Code requires a report to the DMV within 10 days of any accident causing either: 
  • Bodily injury
  • Death
  • Property damage to any one person in excess of $1,000
To report the accident, you’ll need to fill out
Form SR-1
and send it to the
DMV at P.O. Box 942884. The form will require the following information: 
  • About the accident (date and time)
  • Whether or not it took place on private property
  • Information about injuries and property damage 
You’ll also need to provide: 
  • Contact information and insurance information of both parties
  • License plate information for both parties, if available
  • Your driver’s license number 
  • Your vehicle’s make, model, and VIN
Pro Tip You’ll be able to use the information in your report to the DMV to file a claim with your car insurance company. 

Insurance providers usually require that you inform them of your car accidents in California

While California state laws do not require that you notify your auto insurance company of an accident, most insurance providers do. Typically, your California car insurance policy will require you to submit a report regarding any accidents, as soon as possible.
Keep in mind: Immediately reporting an auto accident to your car insurance company can ensure that you’ll receive coverage from them if you require it. If you fail to report the accident within a certain timeframe, you may not receive coverage for any damages associated with the collision. 
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Financial responsibility and coverage minimums: California’s insurance requirements

California requires all drivers to demonstrate financial responsibility for their vehicle, and the easiest way to meet that requirement is by purchasing car insurance. 
Under the California insurance code, all drivers must carry
a minimum of 15/30/5 liability insurance coverage
, or: 
Additional coverage, including uninsured motorist coverage, medical payments (MedPay), and collision and comprehensive coverage, is optional in the state of California. 
Here are a few other things to know about car accidents and car insurance in California: 
  • Fines for not being insured: Failure to carry those minimum coverages—or inability to provide proof of insurance during a traffic stop—can earn you fines and fees ranging from $360 for a first offense to $1,800 for subsequent infractions. 
  • Ability to claim damages without car insurance: If you do not carry California’s minimum coverage, it could impact your ability to claim damages, either through insurance or a personal injury lawsuit. 
  • Not every driver in California carries car insurance: A 2019 study by the
    Insurance Information Institute (III)
    found that about 16.6% of California drivers don’t carry car insurance. 
  • If you’re in an accident with an uninsured driver: If you’re one of the 83.4% of drivers who are insured, you could have trouble claiming damages if you’re in an accident with an uninsured driver. That’s why it’s a good idea to purchase
    uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage
    , which California law requires all insurance providers to offer. 

What to do if you’re in a car accident without insurance in California

First and foremost: do not leave the scene of the car accident even if you don’t have car insurance. 
Leaving the accident scene is considered a serious offense in California, and you could face the following penalties: 
  • If the accident involves property damage: A $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.
  • If the accident involves injuries: A $10,000 fine and up to three years in jail.
  • If the accident involves death: A felony hit-and-run charge and extended jail time.
With this said, if you’re caught driving without insurance after a car accident, you’ll face penalties including a $1,800 fine and a mandatory one-year driver’s license suspension. Your vehicle may also be impounded.
  • You’ll be able to file a claim for vehicle repairs and medical expenses with the at-fault driver’s insurance company even if you don’t have an insurance policy.
  • If the other driver is uninsured, you can file a personal injury lawsuit for car repairs, medical bills, and lost wages.
  • Car accident victims cannot file for noneconomic damages without insurance.
  • You will be financially responsible for your percentage of the driver’s car repairs and medical expenses.
  • The other driver can file a personal injury lawsuit to claim compensation for damages from an accident you caused.

Claiming damages after an accident: California’s personal injury laws

Depending on the circumstances of an accident, you may want to go beyond an insurance claim and file a personal injury lawsuit to collect damages. 
Section 1431.2
of California’s Civil Code, you have the right to claim both economic and non-economic damages associated with a car accident. Those include: 
  • Economic damages: medical bills, lost wages, lost employment or business opportunities, loss of use of property, burial expenses
  • Non-economic damages: pain and suffering, mental suffering, inconvenience, humiliation
Pro tip: Consult with a personal injury lawyer or car accident attorney to handle your personal injury lawsuit. This way, you can ensure you’re getting the right legal assistance to collect damages.

Statute of limitations: exceptions to California’s personal injury laws

The California Civil Code sets a time limit on personal injury lawsuits stemming from accidents—but the exact time frame depends on the nature of the damages you’re claiming. 
  • For property damage claims, you have three years to file a legal claim (
    CCP § 338
  • For bodily injury claims, you have two years to file a suit (
    CCP § 335.1
  • For accidents caused by government negligence, you have just six months to file a lawsuit (GOV § 991.2)
Key Takeaway: Consult with your insurance agent and reach out to a car accident lawyer or personal injury attorney as soon as possible if you require a personal injury lawsuit following an accident in California.

Exceptions to California’s personal injury laws

There are a few cases where you may not be able to claim damages from a car accident—and a few other cases where the statute of limitations could be extended to allow a longer window for car accident claims:
  • California law prohibits anyone without car insurance or proof of financial responsibility to claim non-economic damages from an accident. 
  • Anyone with a DUI
    is banned from non-economic claims. 
However, for other claimants, the statute of limitations may be extended past the usual deadline in the following cases: 
  • If there was a delay in discovering injuries resulting from a car accident 
  • If the defendant can’t be found or is in prison
  • If the ​​victim was a minor or disabled

Assigning fault in California car accident cases: California’s pure comparative negligence law

One of the biggest questions that follows any car accident is the question of fault. 
Let’s look at an example: 
If Arnold hits Keisha’s car while speeding on
Los Angeles
roads, but Keisha was texting while driving, who’s at fault for causing the accident—and who gets to collect damages?
  • Claiming damages: Because California is a pure comparative negligence state, both Arnold and Keisha will likely be able to claim damages. That’s because pure comparative negligence allows anyone involved in a car accident to get compensation in proportion to their level of fault—unless they’re found to be 100% at fault for the accident. 
  • Who’s at fault: Both Arnold and Keisha were breaking traffic laws, so neither driver was 100% at fault. If Arnold is found to be 35% at fault and Keisha is 65% at fault, Arnold will be responsible for just 35% of Keisha’s damages, while Keisha or her insurance company will be on the hook for 65% of Arnold’s medical bills or vehicle repairs. 
California’s just one of 12 states that follow a pure comparative negligence rule, also known as pure comparative fault. That’s good news for drivers—but keep in mind that the rules may change if you’re involved in an accident across state borders. 
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Jerry does not provide legal advice. If you’ve been in an accident, reach out to a law firm to discuss your legal rights and needs. 
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Yes. Under section 17708 of the California Vehicle Code, parents and legal guardians can be held financially responsible for all medical bills and property damage if they give their child permission to drive a vehicle and their child is involved in a car accident in California, whether or not the minor has a driver’s license.
After a car accident in California, driver’s typically park their vehicles off the road and exchange personal information. 
Car accidents in California must be reported to the police and the DMV if anyone is hurt, if there’s property damage, or if the accident resulted in death. 
Drivers should take photographs and document the accident to report to their insurance company. Once fault is determined, the not-at-fault driver can file a personal injury lawsuit to claim compensation for any damages from the accident.
California uses pure comparative negligence rules to determine fault. Each Californian driver can be held liable for damages to the other party if they are each found partially at-fault for the accident. If one driver is found 100% at-fault for an accident, they will not be able to claim any financial compensation for the collision.
No, California is not a
no-fault state
. California is a tort or at-fault state, which means fault is assigned based on financial responsibility for damages caused by a traffic accident.
You may be asked to provide photos of the accident upon making the claim. To fully evaluate the damages resulting from an accident, your insurance provider will send a professional insurance adjuster or appraiser to inspect the vehicle. If the damages are minor, you may be asked to fill out a competitive repair estimates form.
If you are the victim of an accident in California where the at-fault driver is not insured, you can file a personal injury lawsuit to claim damages from the other driver. 
If you have uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage, your medical expenses will be covered within your coverage limits. 
Additionally, if you have
, your medical bills will be covered by your car insurance provider within your policy limits, minus your deductible. 
Policyholders with
collision coverage
can also file a claim with their insurance company to cover car repairs. 
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