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Comparative Negligence (Legal Definition: All You Need To Know)

What is Comparative Negligence?

How do you define it?

What is the difference between comparative negligence and contributory negligence?

Keep reading as we have gathered exactly the information that you need!

Let’s dig into our tort law and negligence knowledge!

Are you ready?

Let’s get started!

Comparative Negligence Overview

Comparative negligence (comparative fault) is a principle in tort law stating that a person is responsible for damages caused or injuries suffered in proportion to their contribution to the accident.

In other words, when a person is involved in an accident and suffers damages, the law will reduce the damages the victim may claim in proportion to the victim’s fault or negligence in the cause of the accident.

Typically, casualty insurance companies argue comparative negligence doctrine in an attempt to reduce the insured’s liability.

In common law jurisdictions, there are three types of comparative negligence:

  • Pure comparative negligence (or pure comparative fault)
  • Modified comparative negligence (or modified comparative fault)
  • “Slight/Gross” negligence rule 


How do you define comparative negligence?

According to Law.com, comparative negligence is defined as:

A rule of law applied in accident cases to determine responsibility and damages based on the negligence of every party directly involved in the accident.

Let’s look at this definition a little more closely.

Legally speaking, comparative negligence means:

  • It’s a rule of law
  • Relating to legal responsibility 
  • Where damages are awarded
  • In proportion to each party’s negligence or fault 
  • Relating to the accident

In other words, the law will assign a fault percentage to each party and award damages based on each party’s contribution to the accident.

Types of Comparative Negligence

Let’s look at the different types of comparative negligence regimes applied in the United States. 

Pure Comparative Negligence

What is pure comparative negligence?

Pure comparative negligence is a doctrine in common law jurisdictions stating that a person can claim damages from another for injuries no matter to what degree he or she contributed to the accident.

In other words, a plaintiff can seek damages from the defendant even if the plaintiff was theoretically 99% responsible for the accident and the defendant was only 1% responsible.

In the United States, several states have a “pure comparative negligence” regime such as California and New York.

Modified Comparative Negligence

What is modified comparative negligence?

Modified comparative negligence is a legal theory in common law jurisdictions stating that a person can claim damages from another for injuries provided that he or she was not at fault above a certain threshold.

In other words, if the plaintiff was responsible for 99% of the accident, the law will prevent the plaintiff from seeking damages from the defendant as he or she was mainly liable for the damages.

Some states have established the “threshold” at 50%, while others have it at 51%.

For example, Colorado and Main are two states with a modified comparative negligence threshold of 50%, whereas Illinois and Oregon follow a 51% fault percentage rule.

Slight/Gross Negligence Rule

What is “slight/gross” comparative negligence?

Slight/Gross comparative negligence or (slight/gross negligence) is a rule stating that the amount of damages awarded to the plaintiff will be great if his or her contribution to the accident was “slight” and the defendant’s was “gross”.

The state of South Dakota follows the slight/gross negligence rule.

Elements To Prove

What are the elements needed to prove a comparative negligence case or win a personal injury lawsuit?

For the plaintiff to win a comparative negligence lawsuit, it must demonstrate the elements of negligence:

  • The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care
  • The defendant breached its duty
  • The plaintiff suffered damages or was injured
  • The injuries are caused by the breach of the defendant’s duty

For example, whether you are a pedestrian, motorist, car driver, or riding a bike, you have a reasonable duty to ensure you are safe and others around you are safe.

As a result, if a car driver speeds past a red light, fails to make a stop at the stop sign, or makes an illegal left turn causing an accident and damages, the driver will be held accountable by law.

A pedestrian jaywalking will be considered “negligent” if he or she ends up in an accident.

However, when the plaintiff proves the elements of negligence, the defendant can argue that the plaintiff had partial comparative negligence.

In other words, the defendant cannot be held fully accountable for 100% of the plaintiff’s losses as the plaintiff also failed at exercising reasonable care.

In that case, the court may reduce the plaintiff’s damages in proportion to the plaintiff’s partial fault in the accident and damages.

Comparative Negligence vs Contributory Negligence 

What is the difference between comparative vs contributory negligence?

Comparative negligence is a legal theory typically found in common law jurisdictions where the law “splits” the damages between the plaintiff and the defendant in proportion to their fault in causing the accident or injuries.

For example, if the plaintiff was 25% responsible for causing the accident, the law will allocate 25% of the losses to the plaintiff and will require the defendant to compensate for 75% of the plaintiff’s damages.

On the other hand, contributory negligence is a legal doctrine where the law requires that the plaintiff demonstrate that the defendant was fully responsible for the injuries to be entitled to receive any compensation.

Said differently and taking an extreme example, if the plaintiff is even 1% responsible for the accident, the law will bar the plaintiff from seeking damages from the defendant.

This is pretty harsh for those who suffer injuries in an accident.

In essence, if the defendant can prove that the plaintiff was at fault, even 1%, he or she can walk away liability free.

Many states have abolished this regime in favor of comparative negligence laws although some states continue to apply contributory negligence like in Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

Comparative Negligence States

Do all states recognize comparative negligence?

In fact, most states recognize some form of comparative negligence.

You have different types of states:

  • Comparative negligence states
  • Pure comparative negligence states
  • Modified comparative negligence states
  • Slight/Gross negligence states

The reason is that not all states in the U.S. apply comparative negligence.

Let’s classify the different states based on the negligence rule they apply:

  • Five pure contributory states
  • Eleven pure comparative fault states
  • Ten modified comparative fault states at a 50% threshold
  • Twenty-three modified comparative fault states with a 51% threshold

Legal Defense

In comparative negligence cases, trial lawyers and defense attorneys leverage the doctrine of comparative negligence quite often to defend personal injury lawsuits, or other types of lawsuits filed seeking damages following an accident.

This doctrine provides for a great legal defense because if the court were to hold the defendant responsible for the accident, the defendant can argue that the plaintiff had a role in the accident.

As a result, the defendant’s legal strategy will be to have the court attribute or apportion part of the damages to the plaintiff, minimizing or reducing the defendant’s legal liability.

So instead of the defendant being fully responsible for the damages, he or she can present a defense to be partially held responsible for the damages.

It’s important to note that not all states and jurisdictions have adopted the comparative negligence legal theory but may have other regimes such as pure comparative fault, partial comparative fault, or contributory negligence. 

The defendant’s legal defense should certainly be crafted based on the intricate details of the local laws or the laws applicable to the accident.

Example of Comparative Fault 

Let’s look at an example of comparative negligence to illustrate the concept better.

We’ll take a car accident as an example as it is quite common to see the comparative negligence law invoked in such cases.

Imagine John is driving his car at 50 m.p.h. in a 30 m.p.h. zone and gets into an accident with Mary who failed to fully stop at the stop sign.

In this example, based on the comparative negligence rule, a judge may allocate 60% of the responsibility of the accident to John and 40% to Mary.

If Mary suffered $10,000 in property damage, then the judge will award Mary $6,000 representing John’s “contribution” to the injuries suffered.

Comparative Negligence: Takeaways 

So what is the legal definition of Comparative Negligence?

What are the differences between comparative negligence and contributory negligence?

Let’s look at a summary of our findings.

Comparative Negligence:

  • Comparative negligence or the comparative fault definition can be summarized as a rule whereby the law attributes fault to those involved in an accident and compensates the victim proportionally to the defendant’s fault
  • You have “pure” comparative negligence laws where the plaintiff can recover damages only when the defendant was fully responsible for the damages (without any contribution by the plaintiff)
  • You have “modified” comparative negligence laws where the plaintiff will be able to recover damages from the plaintiff provided he or she is not responsible for more than the legal threshold established by law (50% in some states and 51% in others)
  • To win a comparative negligence case, you need to prove the elements of negligence which is the defendant’s duty of care, breach of duty, damages, and causality 
Accident liability 
Asbestos claims 
Car accident lawyer
Car insurance 
Comparative contribution 
Comparative damages 
Comparative fault
Comparative liability 
Comparative negligence insurance
Personal injury lawyer 
Product liability 
Shared fault 
Toxic tort 
Collateral source rule
Intentional tort
Joint liability
Liability torts 
Negligent tort 
Punitive damages
Several liability 
Tort Law
Treble damages 
Uniform Comparative Fault Act

Editorial Staffhttps://lawyer.zone
Hello Nation! I'm a lawyer and passionate about law. I've practiced law in a boutique law firm, worked in a multi-national organization and as in-house counsel. I've been around the block! On this blog, I provide you with golden nuggets of information about lawyers, attorneys, the law and legal theories. Enjoy!


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