What is Contributory Negligence?
How do you legally define it?
What are the essential elements you should know!
In this article, we will break down the legal definition of Contributory Negligence so you know all there is to know about it!
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Table of Contents
Contributory negligence is a common law doctrine indicating that a person is precluded from claiming damages from another in any way to the extent it had any responsibility (no matter how minor) for the damages caused.
In other words, if the plaintiff (or victim) cannot ask the defendant for compensation relating to damages caused by the defendant if the plaintiff had “any” contributory role to the accident or injuries caused.
If the plaintiff failed to exercise reasonable care and was someone responsible for the accident, the legal theory of contributory negligence will prohibit the recovery of damages from the defendant even if primarily the at-fault party.
This common law tort rule is quite harsh for victims of an accident.
Imagine if the defendant causes an accident and was 99% responsible for the damages caused to the plaintiff (who was responsible for 1%).
According to the contributory negligence law, since the plaintiff had 1% responsibility for causing the accident, it is barred from suing the defendant for damages.
For this reason, most jurisdictions in the United States have abolished contributory negligence.
However, if the state laws apply contributory negligence laws, then personal injury cases will be subject to it, such as:
- Car accidents
- Motorcycle accidents
- Bicycle accidents
- Pedestrian accidents
- Dog bites
- Truck accidents
- Wrongful deaths
What is the definition of contributory negligence?
According to Law.com, contributory negligence is defined as:
Doctrine of common law that if a person was injured in part due to his/her own negligence (his/her negligence “contributed” to the accident), the injured party would not be entitled to collect any damages (money) from another party who supposedly caused the accident.
To define contributory negligence, we can say that it’s:
- A common law rule
- It’s a rule that bars an injured person’s right to claim damages
- The injured person is barred to seek damages if it had contributed to the accident
What are the elements that you need to prove in contributory negligence cases?
Essentially, the plaintiff has to prove the defendant was negligent.
The standard elements of negligence must be proven:
- Duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff
- Breach of that duty
- Causation between the breach and damages
In some jurisdictions, once the plaintiff demonstrates the defendant’s negligence, the defendant can then prove the plaintiff or claimant’s contributory role.
In other jurisdictions, the plaintiff is may also be required to present evidence showing that he or she was not to blame for the accident.
However, there may be a possibility for the defendant to have contributory liability if he or she had the last clear chance to prevent the injuries caused to the plaintiff (although the plaintiff could have been negligent as well).
Due to the unfair results of applying the contributory negligence doctrine, most states have abolished contributory negligence in favor of comparative negligence.
For this reason, you have contributory negligence states and comparative negligence states depending on the laws they have adopted on this matter.
Under the comparative negligence regime, the courts will apply the comparative negligence test to determine each party’s relative responsibility in causing the accident.
Based on that percentage of responsibility, the proven damages will be shared by the parties in that proportion.
For example, if John drives drunk causing an accident where Mary suffers $10,000 in damages, the law will determine John’s relative responsibility and allocate damages based on that.
If John was 75% responsible for the accident, he will be condemned to pay $7,500 of the $10,000 total damages.
In many lawsuits and legal actions, defendants will use the argument that the plaintiff contributed to the accident and should be responsible for it.
Insurance companies are particularly notorious in this area.
When a person files an insurance claim for damages for an insured event, the insurance companies will generally assess the state laws to see if they can leverage the contributory negligence theory in their favor.
In fact, if they can argue that the plaintiff was somewhat responsible for the accident and, as a result, they cannot claim damages from the defendant (insured party), they can limit their liability for damages.
For instance, if an insured person seeks damages for property damage due to a force majeure event, since the insured was not responsible (or did not contribute) to the cause of the accident, the insurance policy covering force majeure events will cover the damages.
However, if the insured person is seeking damages for property loss but the insurance company finds that the person had done some work (minor or major) that may have caused the accident, the insurance company will most certainly refuse compensation.
The definition of comparative negligence should be nuanced with that of comparative negligence.
In essence, contributory negligence is when the law says that the plaintiff cannot recover damages if his or her negligence was a possible cause of the accident or injuries.
On the other hand, comparative negligence is a common law doctrine allowing the plaintiff to recover damages from the defendant to the extent of the defendant’s contribution to the accident.
For example, if the plaintiff suffers $10,000 in damages and the defendant caused 80% of it, then the plaintiff will be entitled to $8,000 (the total damages less the plaintiff’s own percentage of fault).
This is called “pure comparative negligence”.
Under the “pure” comparative negligence, the plaintiff can seek the amount for the defendant’s portion of the damages caused even if the plaintiff was mostly responsible for the damages.
For instance, if the plaintiff suffered $100,000 in damages but was 90% responsible, he or she can claim $10,000 from the defendant.
There’s another type of comparative negligence law called “modified comparative negligence”.
Under the modified comparative negligence, the plaintiff cannot recover damages from the defendant if the plaintiff was responsible for the accident for over 50% (some states it’s 51%).
For example, if the plaintiff suffers $10,000 but was responsible for 60% of the accident, then he or she would not be entitled to claim the difference of $4,000 from the defendant.
What is a good example of contributory negligence?
The common law contributory negligence rule does not work in favor of plaintiffs victims of an accident.
In essence, a person severely injured in an accident will not be able to seek legal compensation for damages if he or she was ever so slightly responsible for the accident.
Example 1: Car Accident
Let’s illustrate this with an example.
Imagine that John is driving drunk and being reckless posing a risk to others.
Imagine that Mary is driving properly but 15 m.p.h above the speeding limit.
If John causes an accident, under the contributing negligence regime, Mary will be precluded from suing John for the damages caused even though Mary’s “contributory” negligence was minor compared to John’s.
This result is not legally fair and does not serve justice.
It’s like a victim of an accident can only win a legal case if the defendant was 100% responsible for the accident (a burden of proof that will be very difficult to meet).
Example 2: Mesothelioma
Another example that we can use to illustrate the point claims for mesothelioma or asbestos exposure by workers.
Imagine that a person has worked for decades in an environment where he or she was exposed to asbestos.
Over time, the person develops lung cancer.
If the worker retains the services of a mesothelioma lawyer to file a lawsuit against the employer, the employer can argue that the plaintiff was contributorily negligent as he or she smoked for many years contributing to the lung cancer.
With this line of defense, the employer may escape having to pay any damages to the worker even if it was proven that the worker was exposed to asbestos for many years.
So, what does Contributory Negligence mean?
What is the contributory negligence legal definition?
Let’s look at a summary of our findings.
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