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What is joint and several liability in California?

Lawsuits that arise out of mishaps on a construction site can be extremely complicated cases. This is because several parties may share blame for the accident. For example, if a wall collapses, the general contractor may have given faulty instructions; the engineers may have used a faulty design; the concrete subcontractor may have used the wrong type of cement; or a co-worker may have made a mistake. In fact, the list could grow to include many parties. How does the law sort out liability in a complex construction dispute if more than one party may be at fault?

Under the common law rule, if two or more parties are at fault, their liability is usually said to be both joint and several: each party is independently liable for its share of the fault, and both parties are 100% liable for all damages resulting from their joint negligence. Great unfairness was often the result when a party who was accountable for a small percentage of total fault could be required to pay 100% of all joint damages. In recent years, many states, including California have modified the rule of joint and several liability to limit its unfairness.

In cases involving personal injury or property damage and based upon comparative fault or negligence, "non-economic damages" are several only and not joint. Non-economic damages means "subjective, non-monetary losses" such as pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental suffering and emotional distress. In other words, a defendant who is found to be only 15% at fault cannot not be required to pay more than 15% of damages attributable to non-economic losses. Economic losses, such as medical expenses, lost income, and other "objectively verifiable monetary losses" remain the joint responsibility of all defendants whose percentage of fault exceeds that of the plaintiff.

Sorting out the amounts that can be collected by a successful plaintiff or paid by each defendant under California's modified rule of joint and several liability can be very complex. Anyone who becomes involved in a construction lawsuit based at least in part on alleged negligence may wish to consult with a lawyer who specializes in construction law for an evaluation of the case and an assessment of both joint and several exposure for damages.

Source: California Civil Code Sections 1430-1432, accessed on Jan. 18, 2016

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