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What Is Comparative Negligence?

When someone gets hurt in an auto accident or a truck accident, deciding who's at fault is often a difficult task. This is especially true in complex accident cases, like wrongful death or malpractice claims. When assigning the blame can't be easily accomplished, comparative negligence comes into practice.

Consider a scenario involving two drivers: Abby and Brian. Abby approaches an intersection and intends to turn left. Without exercising reasonable care, she decides to proceed. Meanwhile, Brian is approaching the intersection while traveling 20 miles per hour over the speed limit. Unable to stop in time, he collides with Abby's car, causing personal injury and property damage.

Here, both parties have breached their duty of care and share some of the fault. Brian is guilty of speeding. This is a clear cause of the accident. Abby should have been more attentive before making her turn, which is also a contributing factor. So, who is responsible for this motor accident? This question brings us to the principle of comparative negligence.

Comparative Negligence Theories and How They Work

Comparative negligence states split the blame and the responsibility for paying damages by using "comparative negligence" rules. These rules state that a victim's recovery for damages will be reduced by the percentage of fault attributable to them. This concept is often referred to as either "apportionment of fault" or "allocation of fault."

Suppose Abby files a personal injury claim against Brian, claiming that she suffered damages of $100,000, primarily for medical expenses. Assume further that a jury in Washington, D.C. finds that Abby's own negligence contributed to the accident by 30%, while Brian's negligence contributed by 70%.

If the jury agrees that damages for her injuries are worth $100,000, Abby would only be able to recover $70,000 ($100,000 reduced by the 30% caused by her own negligence). If Abby's negligence was found to be 70% instead, she could only recover $30,000 for the 30% fault for which Brian was responsible.

This example is true in pure comparative negligence jurisdictions. Other states follow a modified comparative negligence principle, permitting a lawsuit only if the plaintiff was less than 50% at fault. 

Comparative negligence laws typically fall into one of the following general types of comparative negligence:

Pure Contributory Negligence

In states that recognize the pure contributory negligence rule, injured parties may not collect damages if they are as little as one percent to blame for the incident. Only four states follow this legal rule:

  1. Alabama
  2. Maryland
  3. North Carolina
  4. Virginia

The District of Columbia follows this rule as well but makes exceptions for accidents involving pedestrians and bicycles.

Pure Comparative Fault

States recognizing the pure comparative fault rule of accident liability allow parties to collect damages even if they are 99% at fault. However, the amount of damages is limited by the party's actual degree of fault. Thirteen states follow this rule, including California, Florida, and New York.

Modified Comparative Fault

The majority of states follow the modified comparative fault model, which is split into two distinct categories: the 50% bar rule and the 51% bar rule. In states following the 50% rule, a party that is 50% or more responsible for an accident may not recover any damages. In states adhering to the 51% rule, a party may not recover if they are 51% at fault.

Questions About Comparative Negligence? Ask a Personal Injury Lawyer

If you're dealing with a personal injury lawsuit or even just filing an insurance claim with your car insurance company, it's normal to feel overwhelmed by the complexities of the negligence system. It can be difficult to understand how comparative negligence applies to your case.

Whether you're an accident victim filing a lawsuit or defending against one, if you have questions about comparative negligence rules you owe it to yourself to speak with a seasoned personal injury attorney. They can provide personalized legal advice and guide you through the lawsuit process in your personal injury case.

Disclaimer: This information is provided as a guide about comparative negligence and is not legal advice. For specific legal advice related to your circumstances, please consult with a legal professional, such as an accident lawyer.

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