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What is Comparative Negligence?

By Jason Beahm | Last updated on

You may have heard the term Comparative Negligence before, particularly when talking about car accidents, but do you know what it means?

First, let's start with negligence itself. Negligence is the failure to act with the prudence and care that a reasonable person would exercise under the same circumstances. Legally, negligence has five elements: duty, breach, legal causation, factual causation and damages. One could write a book about each element of negligence, so for the sake of brevity, remember this: you generally have a duty toward everyone to exercise "reasonable care" for their safety and property. If you breach that duty, and someone is injured, you are usually going to be held legally responsible.

Now let's move on to comparative negligence, which most stats have adopted and how it applies to car accidents.

Comparative negligence is the concept that when two or more parties failed to exercise reasonable care, they should be held liable based upon their degree of fault. For example, say that you were speeding through town after dark at 65 mph in a 45 mph zone. As you approach an intersection, a car in front of you quickly changes lanes in front of you and slams on the brakes, causing you to hit them from behind. You didn't see the car, because it didn't have any lights on.

In this case, despite the general presumption that rear end accidents are typically the fault of the rear car, comparative negligence comes into play. A jury might find that you were only 30% responsible for the accident. This would mean that if the damages were $5,000, you would only owe $1,500. Further, the opposing party would be held liable for 70% of your damages. 

However, in most states, you cannot recover anything if you are found more than 50% at fault.

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