Shared Blame: Comparative and Contributory Fault for a Personal Injury
What happens if more than one person is to blame for causing an injury?
Personal injury cases hinge on the question: Who was at fault for the accident or incident that caused the injury? And in many cases, the answer isn't very clear-cut. What if you share some level of fault for the accident? In this article we'll discuss how that might affect your case.
Fault in Legal Terms
In legal terms, fault is a loaded word. It means that someone was responsible for causing harm -- usually through carelessness that rises to the level of negligence -- and must pay compensation for all injuries and other losses stemming from that harm. If a personal injury lawsuit goes to court, the result can be a civil jury award in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.
What if Multiple Parties are at Fault?
Sometimes not just one person is at fault. You may have been negligent, and someone else may also have been negligent, making both of you at fault. So, what happens in this scenario? The answer will be vital to your case.
Comparative vs. Contributory Fault Laws
In shared fault situations in a personal injury case, every state follows some variation of one of two legal rules: comparative negligence or contributory negligence.
Contributory negligence essentially says that if you contribute to your own injury, you can't hold anyone else responsible for it. In a pure contributory negligence system, if you are even one percent at fault and you suffer hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, you can't collect any compensation from the person who is 99 percent at fault. If you are determined to have been negligent, even a little bit, you get nothing. This is a pretty harsh rule, but it remains in place in a handful of states (check out the chart below to see which states still follow the contributory negligence rule).
Comparative fault is different from contributory negligence. Under a comparative negligence rule, the first assessment involves the amount of fault that belongs to each person (for causing the accident or injury).
For instance, say one driver ran a red light and the other turned left too soon, right before a car accident. Both of these parties were negligent, and each contributed to the accident. The factfinder in that case (the judge or jury) would have to determine how much fault each of them contributed. For instance, perhaps the person who ran the red light was the one who was primarily responsible, and the other driver just contributed a bit with his own negligent action. The driver who ran the red might be found to be 60 percent at fault, and the driver who turned illegally, 40 percent responsible.
In such cases, under a pure comparative fault system, each party could collect damages equal to the percent of fault that belongs to the other party. For instance, say the left turn driver suffered $100,000 in damages. He/she could recover $60,000 from the red-light runner. If the red-light runner also suffered $100,000 in damages, he/she could only recover 40 percent of those costs, or $40,000, from the driver who made the left turn.
Pure Comparative Fault Vs. Modified Comparative Fault
Some states follow a "pure" comparative negligence rule, and other states have a general cut-off point in place when it comes to just how much fault an injured plaintiff can have and still collect from another at-fault party. The states that set this dividing line in the sand are referred to as "modified comparative fault states" because they've changed the pure comparative fault rules.
In states that follow a "modified comparative negligence" rule, an injured plaintiff can collect compensation from other at-fault parties as long as the plaintiff was less than 50 percent responsible for the accident or incident that led to the injuries.
Which States are Which?
The table below shows the rule that each state uses. Click on your state for more detail, and related state rules on personal injury cases.
|Alabama||Contributory negligence||Alaska||Pure comparative negligence|
|Arizona||Pure comparative negligence||Arkansas||Modified comparative negligence|
|California||Pure comparative negligence||Colorado||Modified comparative negligence|
|Connecticut||Modified comparative negligence||Delaware||Modified comparative negligence|
|D.C. (Washington DC)||Contributory negligence||Florida||Pure comparative negligence|
|Georgia||Modified comparative negligence||Hawaii||Modified comparative negligence|
|Idaho||Modified comparative negligence||Illinois||Modified comparative negligence|
|Indiana||Modified comparative negligence||Iowa||Modified comparative negligence|
|Kansas||Modified comparative negligence||Kentucky||Pure comparative negligence|
|Louisiana||Pure comparative negligence||Maine||Modified comparative negligence|
|Maryland||Contributory negligence||Massachusetts||Modified comparative negligence|
|Michigan||Modified comparative negligence||Minnesota||Modified comparative negligence|
|Mississippi||Pure comparative negligence||Missouri||Pure comparative negligence|
|Montana||Modified comparative negligence||Nebraska||Modified comparative negligence|
|Nevada||Modified comparative negligence||New Hampshire||Modified comparative negligence|
|New Jersey||Modified comparative negligence||New Mexico||Pure comparative negligence|
|New York||Pure comparative negligence||North Carolina||Modified comparative negligence|
|North Dakota||Modified comparative negligence||Ohio||Modified comparative negligence|
|Oklahoma||Modified comparative negligence||Oregon||Modified comparative negligence|
|Pennsylvania||Modified comparative negligence||Rhode Island||Pure comparative negligence|
|South Carolina||Modified comparative negligence||South Dakota||Pure comparative negligence|
|Tennessee||Modified comparative negligence||Texas||Modified comparative negligence|
|Utah||Modified comparative negligence||Vermont||Modified comparative negligence|
|Virginia||Contributory negligence||Washington||Pure comparative negligence|
|West Virginia||Modified comparative negligence||Wisconsin||Modified comparative negligence|
|Wyoming||Modified comparative negligence|
To learn more, see the articles in Alllaw's section on Liability and Fault in Personal Injury Cases.