Suppose I win a civil lawsuit against two parties in California, one being wealthy and the other being poor (and unlikely to pay), but the poor party has clearly (according to the judge, any jury member, or any spectator) played the bigger "wrongful role". Also, suppose there was no monetary benefit to the wealthy party.

(E.g., there was an accidental killing where the poor party was robbing someone with a pointed gun, and the wealthy party tripped into the scene, bumping the gun and causing it to fire - This example might be too extreme, so modify it with some one-time negligence on the part of the wealthy party if you must.)

Can the judge force the wealthy party to pay more?

Since I could have sued only the wealthy party in the first place, it seems the judge should also be able to use a person's wealth as basis for awarded damages, but this does not seem fair here. In general, how is the wealth of defendants used by judges to award damages? Is there any case where the judge is not supposed to consider the wealth of a defendant?

  • Your example is poor. Unless there are further circumstances not explained, there is no fault on the "wealthy party" in that scenario, and they would not be held accountable for any damages. I'd suggest not including the example at all, as it just distracts from your question. If you can't explain an actual situation, fabricating one can just cause readers to focus on the wrong thing.
    – animuson
    Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 17:53

2 Answers 2


Joint and several v Proportionate liability

Joint and several liability is the common law default for torts. Each tortfeasor is “jointly” (together) and “severally” (individually) liable for the total amount.

Some jurisdictions have adopted statutes that use proportionate liability for some or all torts and/or elements of the damage. California has for non-economic damage (pain & suffering etc.) in 1431.2 but keeps joint and several liability for economic loss (e.g. property damage, medical costs etc.).

Proportional liability does not apply when liability arises through law rather than through fault. So an employer is still fully liable for the torts of an employee etc.

  • Ok, I see that things become very case-specific. In the "Joint and Several" cases, it seems like the poor person should be held more accountable if, for example, they win the lottery a few years later (after the wealthy person has already been forced to pay everything)...I wonder if the wealthy person could then win a new lawsuit against the other defendant.
    – bobuhito
    Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 23:14
  • There was a case in the UK, where a victim could have sued a rapist for damages, and didn’t because he had nothing. Years later he won £6,000,000 in the lottery and it was too late to sue him.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jun 1, 2022 at 7:19

There are cases where all the parties legally responsible for damages have to pay for the damages together, and they are individually responsible for paying. So if there was $20,000 in damages, a court would not say "Rich man pays $19,000 and poor man pays $1,000", unless the rich man is indeed responsible for $19,000 of the $20,000. Instead the court may say "rich man and poor man are together responsible to pay $20,000". If that case was won in your favour, you'd most likely focus on getting the money out of the rich man. If he has $20,000 you can ask him to pay $20,000.

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