Comparative vs. Contributory Negligence: Learn about State Rules
It’s only fair for the person responsible for a car accident to bear the costs. But what happens when more than one person shares the blame? The answer to that question isn’t the same in every state.
To just understand negligence in your state, please scroll down and find it and the explanation in the maps below. If you’d like a better understanding of negligence and how your state compares to others, read on.
Four states and the District of Columbia follow a strict “contributory negligence” rule. Under this rule, if an injured party has contributed any negligence to an accident then he or she may not collect damages.
The rest of the U.S. uses a system of “comparative negligence” that allows blame to be divided among multiple people who share responsibility for the harm caused by an accident. Levels of fault are compared and damages may be awarded depending on each individual’s share of the fault.
There are several variations on how comparative negligence rules are applied, and in some states not everyone who shares fault can collect from the other parties. Continue reading to learn more about how these systems work and what it would mean for you if you in the event of a car accident.
Don’t worry if you’re still a little fuzzy on how the different systems work. We’ll first explain the similarities and differences, then we'll go into more detail of each system and provide examples.
We have discussed the main differences between “contributive” and “comparative,” negligence, but what is “negligence?”
Negligence is used as a basis for determining fault, and a person who is at fault must compensate the people who are harmed by an accident.
A person is negligent when they do not employ reasonable care in their activities, such as not maintaining a reasonable lookout on the road. So a person who runs a red light is negligent and, therefore, may be at fault if his negligence results in a car accident.
If you exceed the speed limit or make an illegal turn you are not employing a reasonable lookout. If you know your brakes need servicing and you drive anyway, you may be found negligent and at least partially at fault in an accident. If you knowingly get into a car with an intoxicated driver, you may be found to share some blame for your injuries.
In states with a comparative negligence system, when part of the fault for your injuries is your own, you simply can’t collect 100 percent of damages. In states which follow the rule of contributory negligence, any negligence on your part means you can’t receive any compensation from others, even if they are more at fault than you.
The five different ways states view negligence are summarized in the table below.
|Doctrines of Negligence|
|Contributory Negligence||If you have contributed even the smallest degree of negligence to 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 percent or more at fault for an accident.|
|Modified Comparative Negligence - 51 Percent Rule||You cannot collect damages if you are 51 percent ore 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.|
To recap, 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: Rachel is in a hurry and dashes into a crosswalk without stopping to look both ways. A speeding driver can’t stop in time and smashes into her. Rachel might be found to be only be 5 percent 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.
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 one percent or 99 percent 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 percent at fault you will only collect one percent of your total damages.
Example: Rachel is in a hurry and crosses a street in the middle of a block. A drunk driver careens around the corner and clips her leg as she dives out of the way. The driver crashes into a car as he tries to avoid Rachel at the last second. The drunk driver might be found to be 90 percent at fault and Rachel 10 percent.
In the states that use pure comparative negligence the drunk driver could sue Rachel for his own harm. If he were awarded $10,000 in damages, Rachel would owe the drunk driver $1,000. However if Rachel were awarded $5,000 in damages for her own injuries, she could collect $4,500 from the drunk driver.
This doctrine is also known as the 50 percent bar rule, because if you are 50 percent or more at fault for an accident, you are barred from collecting compensation for your own harm. Any less than 50 percent and you can collect damages, minus the percentage you are at fault.
Example: Susan makes an illegal turn and slams into Rob. At trial, Susan’s lawyer finds that Rob had run a red light. The judge or jury finds that Rob is 51 percent at fault and that Susan is 49 percent at fault. This means that Rob cannot collect damages. If Susan’s damages total $100,000 she can collect $51,000. If both Rob and Susan were found to be equally at fault, neither could collect any damages from the other.
This type of law is also known as the 51 percent bar rule, because if you are 51 percent 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: Again, let’s assume an accident that happens after Susan makes an illegal turn as Rob runs a red light. If both were found equally at fault, or 50 percent each, both could collect damages because both were less than 51 percent at fault.
If damages for both were $100,000, then each would collect $50,000 from the other. However if Susan’s harm were greater than Rob’s, then 50 percent of her damages would be a larger sum of money than 50 percent of Rob’s, so she would collect a larger award.
South Dakota uses an older version of the comparative negligence doctrine known as the slight-gross rule. Rather than assigning specific percentages to each parties’ 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 which may be awarded.
Example: If Rachel 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.
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