Contributory negligence is a rule that prevents an injured party from collecting any damages after a car accident if they were careless and partially to blame for the wreck. Comparative negligence, on the other hand, allows blame to be shared and damages to be awarded based on each individual’s share of the fault.
In general, a person is negligent when they do not employ reasonable care as they drive, such as not paying attention to the road.
Key Things to Know About Contributory vs. Comparative Negligence
- Five states and the District of Columbia use contributory negligence, while the rest of the U.S. uses comparative negligence.
- Under a contributory negligence system, you cannot collect any damages after an accident if you are partially at-fault.
- Under comparative negligence, your ability to collect damages is based on the percentage of fault that you share in the accident.
- There are three types of comparative negligence: pure (all parties involved can collect damages), modified (you can’t collect damages if you have a majority of the fault), and slight-gross (you can only collect damages if you’re slightly negligent).
Contributory vs. Comparative Negligence
|Doctrines of Negligence||Description|
|Contributory Negligence||If you have contributed even the smallest degree of negligence in an accident, you cannot sue another party who may also be at fault.|
|Pure Comparative Negligence||Regardless of who is most at fault, all parties can collect damages minus their portion of fault.|
|Modified Comparative Negligence - 50 Percent Rule||You cannot collect if you are 50% or more at fault for an accident.|
|Modified Comparative Negligence - 51 Percent Rule||You cannot collect damages if you are 51% or more at fault in an accident.|
|Slight vs. Gross Comparative Negligence||You can collect damages only if you are “slightly negligent” compared to another party.|
Under a contributory negligence system, if you contribute even the smallest portion of negligence or fault to your own harm, you can’t collect damages from other parties.
Example of Contributory Negligence:
Person A is in a hurry and dashes into a crosswalk without stopping to look both ways. Person B, who is speeding, can’t stop in time and smashes into her. Person A might be found to be only be 5% at fault, but she cannot collect any damages in a contributory negligence state because she has contributed in a small way to her own injuries.
Contributory Negligence States:
- North Carolina
- District of Columbia
Pure Comparative Negligence
Pure comparative negligence assumes that many people can be proportionally responsible for a single accident and that each should bear his or her share of the costs. It doesn’t matter if you are 1% or 99% at fault in an accident, you can sue the other party or parties and collect some portion of damages. However you can only collect damages for the proportion you are not at fault. If you are 99% at fault you will only collect 1% of your total damages.
Example of Pure Comparative Negligence:
Person A is in a hurry and crosses a street in the middle of a block. Person B, who is driving drunk, careens around the corner and clips Person A’s leg as she dives out of the way. Person B crashes into a car as he tries to avoid Person A at the last second. Person B might be found to be 90% at fault and Person A 10% at fault.
In the states that use pure comparative negligence, Person B could sue Person A for his own harm. If he were awarded $10,000 in damages, Person A would owe Person B $1,000. However, if Person A were awarded $5,000 in damages for her own injuries, she could collect $4,500 from Person B.
Pure Comparative Negligence States:
- New Mexico
- New York
- Rhode Island
Modified Comparative Negligence – 50% Rule
This doctrine is also known as the 50% bar rule, because if you are 50% or more at fault for an accident, you are barred from collecting compensation for your own harm. Any less than 50% and you can collect damages, minus the percentage you are at fault.
Example of 50% Rule:
Driver A makes an illegal turn and slams into Driver B. At trial, Driver A’s lawyer finds that Driver B had run a red light. The judge or jury finds that Driver B is 51% at fault and that Driver A is 49% at fault. This means that Driver B cannot collect damages. If Driver A’s damages total $100,000, she can collect $51,000. If both Driver A and Driver B were found to be equally at fault, neither could collect any damages from the other.
50% Rule States:
- North Dakota
- West Virginia
Modified Comparative Negligence – 51% Rule
This type of law is also known as the 51% bar rule, because if you are 51% or more at fault for the accident, you are barred from collecting. In other words, if you are more at fault than any other party or parties to the accident, you can’t collect damages.
Example of 51% Rule:
Again, let’s assume an accident that happens after Driver A makes an illegal turn as Driver B runs a red light. If both were found equally at fault, or 50% each, both could collect damages because both were less than 51% at fault.
If damages for both were $100,000, then each would collect $50,000 from the other. However if Driver A’s harm were greater than Driver B’s, then 50% of her damages would be a larger sum of money than 50% of Driver B’s, so she would collect a larger award.
51% Rule States:
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- South Carolina
Modified Comparative Negligence – Slight vs. Gross Rule
South Dakota uses an older version of the comparative negligence doctrine known as the slight-gross rule. Rather than assigning specific percentages to each party’s portion of negligence, the slight-gross rule simply says that in order to receive compensation, your negligence must be no more than “slight” in comparison to the other person’s.
Interpretation of “slight” and “gross” is on a case-by-case basis, as is any reduction in damages that may be awarded.
Example of Slight vs. Gross Rule:
If Person A hurries into a crosswalk and is struck by a drunk driver, her negligence may be found to be slight in comparison to the negligence of the intoxicated driver. The reduction of her damages award, if any, will be up to the interpretation of the judge or jury.
Slight vs. Gross Rule State:
- South Dakota