Let’s assume you were injured in an automobile accident.  Your vehicle was struck by a motorist that failed to stop at a stop sign.  That motorist is clearly at fault for the accident, right?

Well, maybe not entirely.  Were your injured because you were not wearing your prescription eyeglasses?  Were you speeding at the time?  Perhaps it was dark out and you forgot to turn your headlights on.  All of these conditions could mean that you were partially at fault for the accident, and your injuries.  Welcome to the world of comparative negligence.

What is Comparative Negligence?

Personal injury cases do not all involve a primary at-fault party.  There are cases where a victim’s own negligence contributed to an accident or injury.  The concept of comparative negligence exists to account for these cases.

Comparative negligence is technically a partial legal defense that a defendant can assert in a personal injury matter.  If asserted, the defense basically states that a plaintiff’s own negligence contributed to an accident or helped cause an injury.  So, what happens if a defendant is successful in raising a comparative negligence defense?

It may seem odd, but the answer ultimately depends on what state you live in.  There are four different sets of comparative negligence rules that exist in the United States.  These include:

  • Pure Comparative Negligence, where a judge or jury will determine a plaintiff’s percentage of responsibility in an accident and will then reduce any final damage award based on that percentage.
  • Pure Contributory Negligence, where a plaintiff will receive no damages if he contributed in any way to the accident or injury.
  • Modified Comparative Negligence-50% Bar Rule, where a plaintiff can only receive a damage award if he was less than 50% responsible for the accident or injury.
  • Modified Comparative Negligence-51% Bar Rule, where a plaintiff can only receive a damage award if he was less than 51% responsible for the accident or injury.

Individual states differ in terms of which set of comparative negligence rules they follow.  Washington is considered a pure comparative negligence state.  Thus, we follow the first set of rules outlined above.

Let’s Clarify Here

Comparative negligence can definitely be confusing so let’s use an example to help clarify matters.  Using our original hypothetical, let’s assume Shirley was driving and failed to stop at a stop sign.  As a result, she collided with Joe’s truck.  Joe suffered damages from the accident.  The total damages amounted to $10,000.   Joe, however, was not wearing his prescription eyeglasses at the time of the accident.

Joe later files a personal injury lawsuit against Shirley.  The case goes to a jury trial.  At trial, Shirley admits that she did not stop at the stop sign.  Nonetheless, Shirley raises a comparative negligence defense and asserts that Joe was negligent as well in the accident since he was not wearing his eyeglasses.

Both Joe and Shirley live in Washington.  This means the concept of pure comparative negligence applies.  Using this set of rules, it’s up to the jury to decide if: (1) Joe was actually negligent in the car accident; and, (2) if he was, the degree to which he was responsible for his injuries (expressed as a percentage).

During deliberations, the jury finds that both Shirley and Joe were negligent in the accident.  Shirley negligently failed to stop and Joe was negligent since he was not wearing his prescription eyeglasses.  In other words, both parties are to blame.  The jury also finds that, given his own negligence, Joe was 50% responsible for the injuries he sustained.

Given these findings, the judge in the matter would enter a damage award in Joe’s favor.  However, he would not receive the full amount of $10,000 in damages.  Since he was 50% responsible in the accident, the judge would reduce Joe’s damage award by 50%.  This means Joe would receive $5,000 in damages.

Crystal Clear, Right?

This may be true for some, but quite unlikely for others.  Further, please note that the above example is a simple one.  There are many personal injury cases that involve multiple parties and they could all bear some percentage of fault for any injuries caused.  This adds confusion and complexity.  Please also note that comparative negligence can be involved in any type of personal injury lawsuit (e.g., auto collisions, product liability cases, medical malpractice cases, etc.).  Again, confusion and complexity are added for those unfamiliar with the law.

Luckily for you, the experienced attorneys at Phillips Law Firm are well versed and knowledgeable in the concept of comparative negligence.  These attorneys can answer your questions and work towards getting you the compensation that you deserve.  Please contact them today and let their help begin!