Driving Without Insurance in California – No Recovery for Non-Economic Damages

California law generally allows injured plaintiffs to claim both economic and non-economic damages. In fact, California law does not place a cap on the maximum amount of either. Economic damages are readily quantifiable monetary expenses, such as lost wages and medical expenses.

Non-economic damages are sometimes called “pain and suffering” or “nonpecuniary” damages. Awards of this type are intended to compensate the plaintiff for things whose economic value cannot readily be calculated.

Exceptions on Limits to Non-Economic Damages

There are two major exceptions to the general rule regarding limits on damages, however. The first applies in medical malpractice cases. In 1975, the California legislature adopted the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA). MICRA’s intent was to reduce medical malpractice insurance premiums by limiting to $250,000 the amount of non-economic damages recoverable in a malpractice case.         

The second major exception is one that we hope will be of concern to few if any readers of this blog. It affects uninsured California drivers; that is, those who do not carry at least the minimum automobile liability insurance coverage required by law.

Understand the Facts

As one might expect, driving without mandatory insurance is a violation of state law, punishable by substantial fines as well as impoundment of the offender’s vehicle. In addition, an uninsured driver will be personally responsible for any award of damages (whether economic, non-economic, or both) if he or she is at fault in an accident-related lawsuit.

As significant as these risks are, they appear to be less than fully effective deterrents. By some estimates, 20 percent of motorists on California roads at any time are uninsured, which places the state in the top ten nationally and well above the national average of about 14 percent.

Because of the significant possibility of being involved in an accident with an uninsured driver, many individuals have “uninsured motorist” coverage added to their auto policies. In addition to the cost of this coverage, they also pay for uninsured drivers through higher policy premiums.   

Complexities in The System for the Uninsured

There is an additional, albeit lesser-known (and arguably an even weaker deterrent), a price that uninsured California drivers may pay. So far we have focused on uninsured drivers whose negligent conduct injures others. But what of the flip side – an uninsured driver who is injured in an accident caused by an insured driver?

The uninsured driver is not left totally unprotected. He or she may still recover economic damages. As noted above these are calculable monetary losses such as medical bills and lost wages. Unlike a driver who is in compliance with the insurance requirement, however, under California law, an uninsured driver may not recover compensation for non-economic damages. In other words, the injured but uninsured driver will not be entitled to damages for pain and suffering, physical impairment or disfigurement, regardless of severity.

There is one exception. The bar against non-economic damages does not apply if a driver at fault is convicted of driving under the influence at the time of the accident.

NOTE: This is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.