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A Car Accident Defense: Contributory Negligence

This guest post is from Stacey Montgomery, who earned a B.A. in political science from Columbia University in New York City. She went on to receive a J.D. degree from Boston University School of Law. While at Boston University, she was an editor for the Probate Law Journal and editor-in-chief for Legislative Services. After graduating, Stacey worked at large law firms in Chicago practicing employee benefits law and was an adjunct professor at The John Marshall Law School where she taught legal writing.

While there are many causes for car accidents, the vast majority of accidents occur as a result of driver negligence. However, there are instances in which more than one person is negligent. The determination of who was negligent is critical to determining fault. The person who is at fault for the car accident will be financially liable to the victims for injuries and property damages that resulted from the accident.

Negligent Driving

A driver is considered negligent if he or she drives carelessly, resulting in harm to another person or damage to property. There are many ways in which a person could drive negligently. New York, like all states, has laws that define the “rules of the road.” If a driver violates any of these rules and causes an accident, then that driver would have been negligent and responsible for any damage that results from this negligence. For example, New York drivers have a duty to obey traffic signals. If a driver fails to stop at a red light and as a result hits another vehicle, that driver was negligent, and therefore liable for the accident.

Contributory Negligence

However, what happens if more than one driver is negligent and causes an accident? For example, if Driver A was driving in the evening and rear-ended another car causing damage to the car and injury to the Driver B. The police officer at the scene determined that the accident occurred because Driver A failed to maintain a safe distance from Driver B’s car. However, noting that Driver B’s car did not have its lights on, the police officer also ticketed Driver B. Both Driver A and Driver B violated traffic laws, contributing to the accident. What would the result be if Driver B sued Driver A to recover damages for his or her injuries and property damage? It depends on the jurisdiction. In jurisdictions that permit contributory negligence as a complete defense, Driver B would be out of luck. Under the theory of pure contributory negligence, if someone’s negligence contributed to the accident, even in a minor way, then that person would not be able to recover damages from the other party. Many believe that pure contributory negligence often leads to an unfair result, leaving a slightly negligent injured person without recourse in cases where the accident would have still occurred because of the other party’s much more significant negligence. Because of this perceived unfairness, most state legislatures passed statutes that eliminated contributory negligence as a defense. Currently, only Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. still allow contributory negligence as a complete defense to liability.

Comparative Negligence

A Syracuse car accident lawyer points out that there are also jurisdictions such as New York that employ a “comparative negligence” standard to car accident law. This legal theory permits parties to recover damages even when partially at fault. However, the amount of recovery is proportionately reduced by the amount of fault. This is referred to as “allocation of fault.” For example, suppose Driver B succeeds in his or her lawsuit against Driver A, and the jury finds that Drive B should receive damages of $500 for property damage and $10,000 for medical bills. Furthermore, suppose the jury also finds that Driver B was 10% at fault in causing the accident. Instead of being awarded $10,500, Driver B’s award would be reduced by 10% to $9450.

Still other jurisdictions such as Texas use a modified comparative negligence theory, also referred to as modified contributory negligence, where whether Driver B would be able to recover any damages from Driver A depends on “how negligent” Driver B was. If the court determines that Driver B was more than 50% at fault, then Driver B would not be able to recover any damages from Driver A. If Driver B was 50% or less at fault, then Driver B would be able to recover damages based on a comparative negligence calculation.

Allocation of fault seeks to add a measure of fairness to personal liability cases, holding all parties financially responsible for their part in causing the accident. So why wouldn’t all states eliminate contributory negligence as a complete defense to financial liability? What is the legal argument that contributory negligence is fair?

Bob Kraft

I am a Dallas, Texas lawyer who has had the privilege of helping thousands of clients since 1971 in the areas of Personal Injury law and Social Security Disability.

About This Blog

The title of this blog reflects my attitude toward those government agencies and insurance companies that routinely mistreat injured or disabled people. As a Dallas, Texas lawyer, I've spent more than 45 years trying to help those poor folk, and I have been frustrated daily by the actions of the people on the other side of their claims. (Sorry if I offended you...)

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