Car Accident:

Comparative Negligence vs Contributory Negligence

The laws vary from state to state regarding contributory and comparative negligence. Both relate to the distribution of fault following an auto accident and, consequently, to the recovery of monetary damages. Contributory negligence is less common; only a minority of states have maintained it. It means that an individual cannot file a car accident lawsuit for injuries or damages if his or her negligent actions contributed in any way to the accident. It is best illustrated with an example.

If a driver makes an illegal right-on-red and is struck by a car traveling 12 mph over the speed limit, that driver cannot sue the speeding motorist for damages. Under contributory negligence, because the driver’s own negligence contributed to the accident, he or she is barred from recovering any auto accident damages from the speeding motorist. This case would be a case of pure contributory negligence, and is the law in some states.

Other states have adopted a modified contributory negligence system. In these states, individuals may file a suit against another civil offender (such as the speeding motorist), only if it is determined that their own negligence contributed to the accident less than 50 percent. The majority of states operate under a comparative negligence theory. This allows individuals to sue other motorists, regardless of whether their own negligence contributed to the accident. However, due to apportionment of fault (also called allocation of fault), they cannot recover the full damages; damages are reduced by the percentage of fault for which the suing driver is responsible. It can be illustrated by using the previous stated case.

If the turning driver attempts to sue the speeding driver for $100,000 in damages, a jury will be required to determine the division of fault. Suppose that the jury finds that the turning driver was responsible for 40 percent of the accident and the speeder was responsible for the additional 60 percent and agrees that the damages are worth the 100,000. In this case, the turning driver would be able to recover $60,000. That is, the driver would only be able to recover the percentage for which the other driver was responsible (60 percent of $100,000). If, on the other hand, the jury had found that the turning driver was responsible for 60 percent and the negligence of the speeding driver was responsible for only 40 percent, the turning driver would only be able to recover $40,000. This is pure comparative negligence. Some states have adopted modified comparative negligence laws. In these states, an individual may sue only if his or her negligence is responsible for less than 50 percent of the resulting damages.