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Contributory Fault

Contributory FaultWhen an accident happens, there is often more than one party to blame. Contributory fault, otherwise known as comparative negligence or comparative fault, is a principle used to distribute liability when more than one party is responsible for an accident.

Not every state uses comparative fault. Moreover, different states apply different versions of it. Most comparative fault claims are based on negligence.

How States Apportion Liability for Accidents

How States Apportion Liability for Accidents

States use three different methods to apportion liability when multiple parties share fault for an accident: pure comparative fault, modified comparative fault, and contributory negligence.

There are two main types of modified comparative fault.

Pure Comparative Fault

New York applies a “pure comparative fault” system. Under a pure comparative fault system, you can collect at least some compensation for a personal injury unless you were 100% at fault for the accident. Courts will merely reduce your damages for whatever portion of the accident was attributable to you.

For example, if you were 35% at fault, you will lose 35% of your damages. If the other side’s damages were much greater than yours, you won’t necessarily come out ahead.

Modified Comparative Fault

Most states apply a “modified comparative fault” system. A modified comparative fault system works like a pure comparative fault system, except that a “bar” applies. Depending on the state, once your percentage of fault reaches 50% or 51%, you lose your right to any damages.

Contributory Negligence

Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. are the only states that still use the contributory negligence system to resolve liability when an accident involves multiple blameworthy parties.

Under contributory negligence, you lose your right to damages if the other side can prove that you were even 1% at fault for the accident. To obtain any damages at all, you must prove that you were 0% at fault. Many legal scholars consider contributory negligence to be unjust.

Hypothetical Scenario

To illustrate the difference between these three systems, imagine a car accident where each party is 50% to blame, and both drivers suffer injury.

  • Under a pure comparative negligence system, each side will pay half of their own damages, and each side must pay half of the other driver’s damages.
  • In a “50% bar” modified comparative fault system, neither party will receive any damages because both parties reached the cutoff of 50%.
  • In a “51% bar” modified comparative fault system, the result will be the same as under pure comparative negligence since neither party’s percentage of fault reached the 51% cutoff.
  • In a contributory negligence system, neither party will receive any damages since they were both partly at fault.

For large claims, insurance policy coverage limits are likely to restrict the amount of money that actually changes hands.

How Causation Works

Causation is one of the four legal elements of a personal injury claim. You cannot incur liability for an accident unless your negligence caused the damages that the other side is complaining of.

Two types of causation must be present for you to bear liability: “but for” causation and proximate causation:

  • “But for” causation is present if the accident would not have happened but for your negligence (or other misconduct).
  • Proximate cause is present only if the accident was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of your misconduct. Strange coincidences do not result in liability unless they were foreseeable to the average person.

Remember, both of these two types of causation must be present for the defendant to bear liability.

Wrongful Death

If someone dies in an accident, a wrongful death claim may arise. Since a dead person cannot file a lawsuit, the personal representative (executor) of the deceased victim’s probate estate must file the lawsuit. Damages go to the deceased victim’s probate estate for eventual distribution to beneficiaries.

The doctrine of contributory fault/comparative negligence applies to wrongful death claims as well as to personal injury claims. If the deceased victim was partially at fault for the accident, a court will reduce the amount of damages accordingly.

Contact a Lawyer if You’re Being Blamed for an Accident

New York’s pure comparative negligence system encourages defendants to chip away at their liability by blaming the accident victim. Insurance adjusters are quite skilled at playing the blame game.

Because of this, you almost certainly need a lawyer for any sizable claim. You might not even know the true value of your claim unless you consult with a lawyer first. Contact one today for help with your claim.

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