Comparative Negligence vs. Contributory Negligence
Under the legal doctrine of comparative negligence, when both a plaintiff and a defendant are guilty of negligence, the plaintiff’s damage award will be reduced by the amount of his responsibility for the accident. For example, a motorcycle collides with a truck at an intersection. At the time of the collision, the motorcycle rider was exceeding the legal speed limit. Just before the collision, the truck driver ran a red light. The motorcycle rider files a personal injury action against the truck driver. A jury determines that the truck driver is 80% at fault for the accident and the motorcycle rider is 20% at fault. The jury awards the motorcycle rider $10,000 in damages. Under the doctrine of comparative negligence, the motorcycle rider’s $10,000 damage award will be reduced by 20% because he was 20% at fault for the accident. Therefore, the motorcycle rider can recover only $8,000 from the truck driver.
Most states have adopted some form of comparative negligence for personal injury cases.
Traditionally, the doctrine of contributory negligence barred a plaintiff in a personal injury action from recovering damages if he was in any way responsible for an accident. Therefore, under the scenario above, the motorcycle rider could not recover any damages from the truck driver because the motorcycle rider was 20% at fault. However, most states that still follow the doctrine of contributory negligence have modified the doctrine to provide that the plaintiff’s recovery is barred only if his responsibility for the accident is 50% or greater. Under this modified version of contributory negligence, the motorcycle rider could recover damages from the truck driver because the motorcycle rider was less than 50% at fault for the accident. Most states that have adopted modified contributory negligence also apply principles of comparative negligence. Therefore, the motorcycle rider would recover 80% of the damage award, using a comparative negligence approach.
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