Li v. Yellow Cab Co. of California

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Li v. Yellow Cab Co. of California

Li v. Yellow Cab Co. of California Case Brief

by Thomas L. Libby

It was a quiet Thursday night in Los Angeles in November 1968 when Nga Li, driving her Oldsmobile northbound on Alvarado Boulevard, decided to turn left across three lanes of oncoming traffic into a service station.

At the same time, Robert Phillips sped southbound at 30 miles per hour in his taxicab, proceeding through a yellow traffic light on Alvarado and striking the rear of Li’s vehicle.

Both parties were at fault, but Li was injured and she sued.

At the time, California followed a “contributory negligence” standard, which barred any recovery when the plaintiff’s conduct contributed, even minimally, to the harm suffered. It was referred to as an “all-or-nothing” rule.

The California trial court found for Phillips, but nearly seven years later the California Supreme Court reversed the judgment. It adopted a new system of “comparative negligence,” in which a plaintiff can recover damages beyond the amount of her liability (Li v. Yellow Cab Co. of California, 13 Cal. 3d 804 (1975)).

The court argued that the contributory negligence standard failed to distribute responsibility in proportion to fault. Similarly, it declared that the “comparative fault” standard used in Wisconsin – which allowed a plaintiff to recover when deemed less than 50 percent at fault – was just as inequitable. That standard, the court said, “simply shifts the lottery aspect of the contributory negligence rule to a different ground.”

The “pure” form of comparative negligence adopted by the court – already in use in Florida, Mississippi, Washington, and Rhode Island – assigns respon-sibility in accordance with each party’s fault in what it described as “logic, practical experience, and fundamental justice.”

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