Motor Vehicle Accidents Law

Car Accidents: Contributory & Comparative Negligence

After a car accident, determining fault is one of the most critical challenges. Being found responsible for an accident could mean having to pay for any damage and higher insurance premiums.

The laws for determining fault in a car accident vary by state. Most important will be whether your state uses contributory negligence or comparative negligence when determining fault.

Common legal terms to know include:

  • Plaintiff's negligence: The person who brings the lawsuit (plaintiff) has some fault
  • Plaintiff's damages: The medical costs and damage to car and property
  • Plaintiff's recovery: The money won at the end of the case
  • Defendant: The person the lawsuit is brought against (usually the at-fault person or person with the most responsibility for the accident)

In a personal injury case, your own negligence can be a cause of the accident. But that doesn't always mean you can't recover money for your own injuries.

What Is Negligence?

Negligence is generally defined as the failure to use reasonable care that causes harm to another. Examples of negligence that cause car accidents could involve actions like:

  • Speeding
  • Running through a red light
  • Crossing lane lines
  • Driving at night without headlights on
  • Failing to replace burned-out turn signals
  • Failing to fix faulty brakes
  • Not stopping for a pedestrian
  • Using a smartphone while driving
  • Driving drunk

Proving a Negligence Claim

To prove a negligence claim, a victim must show that the defendant owed a duty of car and they failed to uphold that duty. All drivers have a "duty of care" to other drivers on the road. The process of proving a negligence claim usually includes:

  1. Using evidence to prove the other person breached that duty (Eyewitness testimony, surveillance cameras, police investigation reports, and other types of evidence)
  2. Proving this breach caused the plaintiff's harm (injuries, property damage, and lost wages, among other losses)
  3. Proving the extent of the damage that was caused (documented by a mechanic's repair estimate, a hospital bill, or proof of missed work)

Contributory Negligence

Alabama, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia use the concept of contributory negligence to evaluate a car accident lawsuit. Under this approach, a plaintiff who is at all responsible for the accident, no matter how small, may be denied any compensation.

Comparative Negligence

All other states implement a more nuanced form of negligence known as comparative negligence. It is sometimes called "comparative fault." This theory recognizes that several factors can contribute to an accident and determines shared responsibility based upon the facts of the case.

Pure vs. Modified Comparative Negligence

Several states, including Arizona, California, Florida, and New York, are governed by what is known as "pure comparative negligence." In these jurisdictions, even plaintiffs who were 99% responsible for the accident can recover damages.

The remaining states have adopted the principle of "modified comparative negligence." Under this theory, plaintiffs can recover damages unless they have been determined to be 50% at fault (12 states) or greater than 50% at fault (21 states).

Hypothetical Contributory Negligence Case

Imagine an accident on a Virginia highway involves a driver who was speeding and who is hit head-on by a car going the wrong way. Since Virginia is a contributory negligence state, the speeding driver will be unable to recover damages even if the accident was caused by the wrong-way driver.

Hypothetical Comparative Negligence Case

In a Nevada accident, a car driven by a drunk person crashes into the side of a car. The other car made an illegal turn in front of the drunk driver. The drunk driver sues the other motorist and seeks $100,000 in damages. The jury determines that the impaired driver bore a 40% share of responsibility. They conclude that the defendant was at fault and reduce the award by 40% to $60,000.

Comparative vs. contributory negligence laws can be complicated. People who have been injured in a car accident may want to meet with an experienced personal injury attorney to learn what recourse they may have.