January 14, 2010

What You Need to Know about Contributory Negligence

In the aftermath of any motor vehicle accident, the question of fault arises. In many cases, there can be no doubt of fault and the matter can be handled swiftly and with little trouble. However, there are instances in which a claimant or plaintiff must seek legal action in order to attempt to recover costs associated with the accident.

It is within the scope of legal proceedings that the concept of “contributory negligence” comes into play. Contributory negligence is defined by Charlesworth and Percy as “some act or omission on the claimant’s part which has materially contributed to the damage caused and is of such a nature that it may properly be described as negligence.” This means that although the defendant may have caused the accident, for example by running over a cyclist while operating a vehicle, the cyclist may also share some fault. This could be the case if, for example, the bicyclist failed to obey the rules of road and turned into the path of the car.

Under the system of pure contributory negligence, if the plaintiff were found to be negligent in any way, they would not be entitled to recover any of damages from the defendant. Most states have deemed this policy too harsh, although five states retain it.

The system that has replaced contributory negligence is comparative negligence. In this framework, the amount of fault borne by both parties is assessed, and the ability to recover any damages is based on this finding. Following the example above, if the cyclist was only five percent responsible for the accident because they were not wearing the proper equipment, they would only be entitled to recover 95 percent of their damages. Thirteen states use this system.

In a modified comparative system, a plaintiff can only recover damages if their fault falls below a 50 percent threshold. If in a 50-percent comparative system state the cyclist was found to have contributed 50 percent or more of the fault in the accident, they can recover nothing.

It is important to have a basic understanding of contributory negligence when obtaining any auto insurance quote and when making a claim. While an insurance company may be able to provide a low quote, if they operate under a pure contributory negligence system, they will not cover the policyholder if they are in any way deemed to be at fault. As well, when making an auto insurance claim, if the plaintiff is determined to bear any fault it can cause their premiums to increase.

It is worth the time and effort to be very clear about what the auto insurer’s policy is on contributory negligence before purchasing any type of auto insurance coverage with them.