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What Is Contributory Negligence and How Does It Impact a Personal Injury Lawsuit?

Contributory negligence is a legal term that refers to the rule limiting a plaintiff's recovery of damages from an accident or injury to an occasion when only one party (and not the plaintiff) was negligent in his or her actions. The rule of contributory negligence is not followed in all jurisdictions and is seen as the older, traditional, minority rule today. The rule frequently arises in the context of car accidents and the resulting personal injury litigation. Just how does contributory negligence impact personal injury litigation? The concept of contributory negligence is based upon the idea that an injured person who may have had a role in the occurrence of her own injuries should not be able to receive any damages or compensation for his or her own wrongdoings or carelessness, as a basic fairness principle.

Plaintiff Negligence

If an injured party brings suit against a defendant when the injured party had a role in causing her own injuries and damages, then the defendant can absolve him or herself of liability if he or she successfully proves that the injured party's negligent conduct had a part in the accident or injury. It matters not whether that contributory role in causing the injuries was 1 percent or 99.9 percent, just so long as there is some modicum or measure of culpability. The rule is harsh, as any level of negligence whatsoever is sufficient to absolutely preclude the recovery of damages on the part of the plaintiff.

The laws involving contributory negligence in many jurisdictions are rather harsh and strict. It is a complicated and difficult process to prove negligence. A successful personal injury litigant has a two-fold task:

  • to successfully prove negligence on the part of the adverse party, the defendant
  • to successfully clear the plaintiff's name of any allegations of contributing negligent conduct or behavior, such that the suit would be barred by the doctrine of contributory negligence

High Stakes

Contributory negligence is also a way in which to apportion or allocate the liability between parties when the identification of who is at fault in an accident is not clear and defined. Understandably, the situation can become complex very quickly. The stakes are also high because contributory negligence is a total bar to damage recovery in some jurisdictions, and in others, it is at least a form of reduction in damages that is used to match the party's role in causing the injury at issue. As a result, parties are prudent to seek the advice and consult of counsel as early as possible in such cases, both to preserve the suit and the highest possible recovery as plaintiffs, or to aggressively defend under total or major defenses such as contributory negligence for defendants.