If you have been injured in a car accident in California, you are probably facing unexpected medical and car repair expenses. As the bills stack up, you may wonder “what is the average settlement for a car accident?” A settlement is a legal agreement in which both parties agree not to pursue a lawsuit in court. The injured party receives monetary award as compensation for injuries and expenses suffered from the accident.

In California, the average settlement amount is about $21,000. Each accident has its own set of unique circumstances and injuries. Some involve bruises and cuts, while others result in traumatic brain injury. One accident will leave a car a total loss, while another will cause minor dents. Most accidents involve careless driving. Others involve reckless behavior, such as drunk driving.

With so many variables and types of accidents, however, the parties do not base a settlement on an average amount. The parties consider many factors in the settlement process, including:

  • extent of injuries
  • medical costs
  • lost wages
  • pain and suffering
  • personal property damage

Judges and attorneys tend to prefer settlements to personal injury trials because settlements are generally less expensive and less time-consuming. The injured party (“plaintiff”) and at-fault party (“defendant”) both have input into the final outcome of a settlement, making the process less stressful. In fact, California law requires parties to participate in at least one settlement conference before a case can proceed to trial.

Extent of Injuries 

Car accidents cause many types of injuries that vary in severity. Injuries that typically occur include:

  • broken bones
  • internal bleeding
  • organ damage
  • whiplash
  • concussion
  • bruises and lacerations 
  • sprains and dislocations 

The severity and length of recovery are important factors in determining a car accident settlement. A claimant who sustains a sprain and recovers completely from the injury will usually collect less than an individual who sustains permanent brain damage. Injuries that require longer recovery time tend to result in a higher settlement.

To ensure that a settlement reflects the extent of injuries, it is important to seek medical treatment immediately after the car accident. You will have to provide a doctor’s statement that the accident caused your injuries. If you wait weeks or even days to seek treatment, it becomes difficult to trace the injuries to the accident. A California personal injury attorney can make sure that you have the necessary documentation for your case.

Medical Treatment Costs

A settlement should reflect the cost of immediate medical treatment, as well as future treatments resulting from the accident. For example, a claimant will have medical bills from their first visit to the emergency department and hospital admission, if any. Injuries may, however, require additional surgeries or physical therapy in future months. You must provide proof that these services are the result of the automobile accident.

Immediate medical attention will give you a head start in documenting injuries and medical costs. You will need proof of your accident-related medical expenses so you can be compensated for them. Make sure that you document costs from all treatments and appointments associated with the accident. Keep records of expenses from any treatments related to the accident. Include bills for ambulance, doctor appointments, nursing care, and other related services.

If your injuries cause disability, you may need help with household cleaning and other chores. You may have to make home renovations, such as ramps or a step-in bathtub, to accommodate your disability. A settlement may compensate you for the expense of renovations or hiring someone to help with upkeep.

Lost Ability to Work

If you are injured in an automobile accident, you may temporarily or permanently lose your ability to work. You may need training so you can work at a different job. For example, you may have been working with heavy machinery before the accident. Injuries, however, forced you to find work in an office setting. A settlement may compensate you for required computer classes. Lost wages — present and future — and the need for additional training are factors that can increase a settlement amount.

You will have to provide proof for your lost wages claim. Required proof may include:

  • letter from your doctor describing your injuries and length of time the injuries forced you to miss work
  • letter from employer documenting dates you missed work
  • pay stubs or direct deposit statements
  • wage verification from employer
  • copy of tax returns (for self-employed)

Pain and Suffering

In addition to job loss and medical bills, an automobile accident may affect your quality of life in other ways. You may have to live with chronic pain for the rest of your life. You may no longer be able to play sports or take part in other activities you once enjoyed. If your injuries leave you disfigured, you may be suffering from mental distress. The accident may cause you to experience fear, anxiety, worry, grief and other types of emotional distress.

A settlement may compensate you for these quality-of-life losses, known as pain and suffering. It can be difficult to place a cash value on subjective factors such as pain and suffering. Insurance companies may undervalue these damages. A California accident injury attorney will be knowledgeable about methods that can help determine pain and suffering damages. These include the multiplier method and the per diem method.

The multiplier method assigns a number to calculate pain and suffering. For example, an insurance company may assign the number 2 as a multiplier in an accident that caused $8,000 in economic damages. The pain and suffering damages would therefore total $16,000.

The per diem method assigns a dollar amount to each day from the accident until full recovery from injuries. Suppose an insurance company assigns $100 as the per diem amount. If you needed 60 days to completely recover, your pain and suffering would be calculated at $6,000.

Personal Property Damage

A car accident will likely cause personal property damage, particularly to your automobile. According to the California Department of Insurance, insurance company will usually pay the lesser of:

  • the cost of repairing the vehicle, or
  • the actual cash value (ACV) of the vehicle

In California, the ACV is the fair market value of the vehicle. In other words, it is the dollar amount that a buyer and seller agree upon for the car.

After the accident, an adjuster or appraiser will inspect the damage and write an estimate. If the repair process reveals additional damage, the insurance company will have to approve the additional repair costs.

If your vehicle is a total loss, the remaining value of the vehicle is known as the salvage value. This number is determined by bids from salvage buyers. If you decide to keep the vehicle, the insurance will deduct the highest salvage bid from the settlement.

Comparative Fault

Unlike many states, California allows you to collect damages from a car accident even if you are partially at fault. California follows the pure comparative fault rule, which reduces damages by percentage of blame. You can therefore recover damages even if you are 99 percent at fault.

For example, you may be injured when you are rear-ended by another car just before you turn into your driveway. Your medical costs, lost wages and pain and suffering add up to $20,000 in damages. However, you are 20 percent at fault because the turn signal on your car was not working. According to the pure comparative fault rule, the defendant would be liable for only 80 percent of the damages. You would therefore receive a $16,000 settlement.

What If the Insurance Policy Is Not Enough?

What happens if your damages are greater than the amount that the insurance will cover? You still have several options for adequate compensation, including umbrella policies, third-party recovery and direct recovery from the defendant.

A defendant may have an umbrella policy, which can cover shortfalls in all of their other policies. For example, damages may total $125,000, but the defendant’s liability policy only covers $100,000. However, the defendant also has an umbrella policy of $50,000, which will cover the remaining $25,000 in damages.

In some cases, additional defendants may be liable for damages from a car accident. For example, a negligent doctor or the manufacturer of a defective car part could be liable for damages. If the at-fault driver and a third party each had $75,000 policies, both policies could be used for paying damages.

Some insurance policies include underinsured or uninsured driver coverage. In this case, the injured party may be able to collect damages from their own insurance policy. The injured party also has the option to reject the settlement and sue the defendant personally for damages.

Direct recovery from an individual defendant, however, can be difficult. Recovery methods include court-ordered wage garnishment or property liens, but recovery depends on whether the defendant has enough assets. A defendant can even file for bankruptcy and not have to pay any damages to you.

Punitive Damages Not Covered by Insurance

Punitive damages are generally not covered by insurance and must be awarded by a judge or jury. It is important to understand the nature of punitive damages and why they are not included in a settlement. Unlike compensation for personal injury or property damage, punitive damages are designed to punish an at-fault driver for:

  • gross negligence
  • recklessness
  • willful or wanton disregard for the safety of others

“Willful” means that the driver’s actions were intentional. “Wanton disregard” means that the driver knew or should have known that their actions would result in injury to others. In order to collect punitive damages, a plaintiff must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions meet this standard.

Drunk driving is a common example of this level of negligence. Another example is playing a game of “chicken” in which two drivers race toward each other until one driver swerves at the last moment. Carelessness or the usual negligence that causes an accident does not warrant punitive damages. Most car accidents do not result in punitive damages.

Several factors determine whether punitive damages apply to a car accident, including:

  • nature of defendant’s actions
  • assets owned by defendant
  • likelihood of harm to future victims if defendant is not punished
  • harm suffered by the plaintiff in the accident

Punitive damages involve questions of law and are not as easily calculated as medical or car repair expenses. An injured party must specifically ask for punitive damages. An attorney can determine whether there is a potential claim for punitive damages, and can advise you on the best course of action.

Talk To An Attorney At Kuzyk Law Today!

When you or someone you care about has been injured in a car accident, you are already under a lot of stress. It is easy to feel overwhelmed when dealing with insurance companies, documenting expenses and making decisions. It is wise to consult with an attorney during the settlement process. An accident injury attorney can handle these challenges for you, saving you time and worry.

Although settlements are generally preferred over jury trials, they are not without risk. During settlement negotiations, the parties have the same responsibilities that a jury would have in a trial. Unlike a jury, the plaintiff and defendant have not heard instructions from a judge regarding the case. An attorney can help you avoid agreeing to a settlement that is too low or otherwise unsatisfactory.

If you have been injured in a car accident in California, talk to an attorney before you agree to a settlement. An experienced attorney can deal with the insurance company and make sure that you have the necessary documentation.At Kuzyk Law, we are happy to discuss your case and answer any questions about the accident or settlement. Please don’t hesitate to contact us for more information.