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Defenses to Negligence Claims

To successfully defend against a negligence suit, the defendant will try to negate one of the elements of the plaintiff's cause of action. In other words, the defendant introduces evidence that they:

  • Did not owe a duty to the plaintiff
  • Exercised reasonable care
  • Did not cause the plaintiff's damages

A defendant may rely on one of a few doctrines that may limit liability based on alleged negligence.

Three of the most common doctrines are:

For instance, you may not be found entirely liable if the other party also was negligent. These defenses to negligence claims are discussed below.

Contributory Negligence

One common defense after an auto accident is contributory negligence. Contributory negligence occurs in a personal injury case when a plaintiff's conduct falls below a certain standard necessary for the plaintiff's protection. This conduct coincides with the defendant's negligence in causing harm to the plaintiff. This means the accident victim most likely would have avoided injuries had they not also been negligent.

Consider a driver who gets injured in a car accident on a busy highway. They were maintaining a safe speed and distance from other vehicles when suddenly, another car cut them off. Although the driver managed to avoid a collision, they had to brake hard. This abrupt stop resulted in their car being rear-ended by the vehicle behind them, which didn't have enough time to stop. The driver suffered severe injuries due to the force of the impact.

In this case, the injured party's driving was not the cause-in-fact or proximate causation of their injuries. Instead, the negligence of the other two drivers — specifically the driver who cut them off and the driver who rear-ended them — were the proximate causes of the motor vehicle accident and subsequent injuries.

Some states use the doctrine of pure contributory negligence. Under this doctrine, a victim who is only one percent at fault for a car accident case may be denied compensation in a personal injury claim. Indiana, for example, applies this doctrine, but only in malpractice cases.

An exception to the contributory negligence defense is known as last clear chance, when the defendant could have avoided causing injury by using ordinary care. For example, a pedestrian crosses the street even though the don't walk sign is clearly visible. A motorist who has the right-of-way but is distracted by her cell phone strikes and injures the pedestrian. Since the motorist could have avoided striking the pedestrian had she used ordinary care, she could still be liable.

In many states, contributory negligence defenses to negligence claims and, by extension, the last clear chance exception, have been replaced by comparative negligence.

Comparative Negligence

Contributory negligence has led to harsh results in some cases. The majority of states have replaced the doctrine with an alternative called comparative negligence. The doctrine of comparative negligence reduces a plaintiff's recovery by the percentage in which the plaintiff is at fault for their damages.

Most states have modified this rule. This bars a plaintiff from recovering if the plaintiff is as much at fault or more at fault than the defendant, depending on the individual state's code.

The three main types of comparative negligence are:

  • Pure Comparative Negligence: the plaintiff is awarded a percentage of the damages for which the defendant is responsible depending on their own percentage of fault
  • Modified: the plaintiff gets a damage award only if their negligence is equal to or less than the defendant's negligence
  • Slight-Gross: the plaintiff is awarded damages only if their negligence is "slight" and the defendant's negligence is "gross"

For example, a drunk driver strikes and seriously injures a pedestrian who failed to use a nearby crosswalk. Although it's unlikely the driver would have acted any differently had the pedestrian used the crosswalk, the driver's civil liability may be reduced due to the plaintiff's own negligence.

Assumption of Risk

When a plaintiff assumes the risk involved in an obviously dangerous activity but proceeds to engage in the activity anyway, they may not be able to recover damages for injuries. For this doctrine to apply, the plaintiff must have actual, subjective knowledge of the risk involved in the activity. The plaintiff must also accept the risk involved in the activity. The assumption of risk defense would not apply to any additional, unknown dangers.

Assumption of risk can be applicable in a car racing scenario. Consider a situation where an individual decides to take part in an amateur car race. This individual is aware of the inherent risks associated with car racing, including the possibility of:

  • Crashes
  • Rollovers
  • High-speed collisions

By choosing to take part, the driver is assuming those risks.

So, if during the race, the driver loses control of their car and crashes into a barrier, causing them to sustain injuries and property damage, they may not be able to recover damages. They had actual, subjective knowledge of the risk involved in the activity and voluntarily accepted that risk by deciding to take part.

Now, imagine something unexpected and not inherently related to the risks of car racing occurs. If the driver's car had a manufacturing defect that caused the brakes to fail, leading to an accident, the driver might not have assumed that specific risk. This is an additional, unknown danger not inherently linked to the activity of car racing. The doctrine of assumption of risk might not apply in this accident claim.

Involved in a Negligence Claim? Get Help From an Accident Attorney

If you're being sued, chances are the other party has a personal injury attorney. The plaintiff's personal injury lawyer will file an insurance claim and work to ensure that you are held liable for their client's injuries. Shouldn't you also be represented? To learn more about your legal options, including any possible defenses to a negligence claim in a personal injury lawsuit, it may be in your best interest to work with an experienced personal injury attorney.

Remember, there is a statute of limitations for personal injury and wrongful death claims. If you need help with your claim, it's in your best interest to contact a reputable law office as soon as possible. A car accident lawyer can help you recover compensation for your medical bills and hold either the responsible party or their insurance company accountable.

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