Wrongful death actions can become complex to resolve in court, especially when multiple defendants are involved. Take a truck accident, for example, that begins when the company that owns the truck fails to perform proper brake maintenance, leading the truck to undergo a brake failure while the truck driver was speeding and to rear-end another vehicle; that vehicle, in turn, was following too closely to the one being driven by a loved one of yours, and as a result hits his or her car, causing it to lose control and to crash into a defectively-designed guardrail, resulting in a fatal accident.
Under California law, how might the potential negligence of the truck company, its driver, the driver of the other car and the manufacturer of the defective guardrail be allocated?
It used to be that California used a legal doctrine known as "joint and several" liability to allocate responsibility for paying a damages award in a civil lawsuit. This meant that the plaintiff could pick from among the defendants, collecting the damages award from all or any one of them. In our example above, it would have been possible to recover all of the wrongful death damages from the truck company. It, in turn, would then have to pursue the other defendants for "contribution" to get them to pay a share.
Today, however, California no longer uses joint and several liability. Since 1975, the state has used the doctrine of "comparative negligence" to allocate damages, meaning that now defendants will be allocated their respective share of damages owed based on their respective percentage of fault for the underlying injury and property damage. It may also apply in the situation where the defendants may claim that the plaintiff (or the decedent in a wrongful death case) was also partly to blame for the accident, which may reduce the damages award by the percentage of his or her fault.
If you should become the plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit or a possible beneficiary in a wrongful death action, the attorney who represents you or the estate of the deceased will be able to help to identify all potential defendants who contributed to the accident, so that your chances of receiving the compensation owed to you can be maximized.