Personal injury cases center around the idea of fault. Determining who was at fault for the accident that caused the injury is at the core of the case. Many times the answer is not clear-cut. As a plaintiff, both contributory negligence and comparative negligence, though very different, can affect a personal injury case in terms of the compensation awarded. North Carolina is one of five jurisdictions that use contributory negligence, which mandates that the plaintiff can’t collect any damages if he/she is partially at fault, even as little as 1%.
In light of contributory negligence, it is incumbent upon people to exercise ordinary care for their own safety. In North Carolina, when it is determined in court that a plaintiff did not do so in order to prevent an accident, then he/she is not entitled to compensation for the injury.
It is crucial to seek the counsel of an attorney when injured in an accident. The law is not black-and-white when assessing fault and cause. Our personal injury attorney at The Doyle Law Offices is experienced and knowledgeable in working with plaintiffs and defendants involved in personal injury cases. Call us at (919) 228-4487 to get the advice and representation you need. In this article, we will define both types of negligence and provide details regarding contributory negligence in North Carolina.
North Carolina uses an absolute “pure” contributory negligence rule, which prohibits a plaintiff from recovering any damages at all from a defendant in an accident when the plaintiff’s negligence is found to have contributed to the accident. This rule is sometimes referred to as an “all or nothing” rule and can result in problems for plaintiffs in personal injury cases.
Historically, contributory negligence was the rule in all states. Many states have now adopted comparative negligence laws, which are less harsh. There are five jurisdictions that still use contributory negligence: Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.
Person A is in a hurry and dashes into a crosswalk without stopping to look both ways. Person B is speeding and can’t stop in time to avoid hitting Person A. Because Person A was negligent in looking both ways for oncoming traffic, he/she is partially at fault for the accident and cannot collect any damages in North Carolina due to being a contributory negligence state.
You are stopped at a red light. When the light turns green, you proceed into the intersection, without looking both ways beforehand. A driver coming from the opposite direction runs the red light and hits your car, resulting in catastrophic injuries. The defendant’s lawyer asserts that you were partially responsible because you did not keep a proper lookout to determine that you could enter the intersection safely. Likewise, the jury finds that you were negligent by not looking both ways and that played a role in causing the collision. You are awarded no damages.
In a real-life example from Maryland, a 20 year old volunteer assistant soccer coach jumped up and grabbed a crossbar on the soccer goal. The goal had not been anchored and came down on him, resulting in multiple facial fractures. The jury agreed that the soccer organization had been negligent in securing the goal; however, they also determined that the volunteer coach’s actions were negligent. He was entitled to zero damages.
If a plaintiff is speeding and another car cuts them off, the plaintiff cannot be awarded damages if the jury determines they are even 1% at fault for speeding.
In North Carolina, the laws allow for joint and several liability when more than one defendant is liable. If the total damages in an injury case are $100,000, both defendants are liable for those damages. However, there is no double recovery. If the plaintiff recovers the entire $100,000 amount from one defendant, the judgment is satisfied. Then, the defendant that paid the full amount can pursue recovery from the defendant who did not contribute to the judgment.
One defense to contributory negligence is called the “last clear chance doctrine.” If the plaintiff driver is in a position of peril and the defendant could have acted to avoid injuring the plaintiff, but does not, then the plaintiff can still recover even though his/her own negligence placed them at risk.
When using a comparative negligence rule, the first assessment is the amount of fault that belongs to each person in causing the accident or injury. A judge or jury must determine how much fault each contributed. Depending on that portion, each party collects damages that are equal to the percent of fault. There are two types of comparative fault systems: (1) pure comparative fault and (2) modified comparative fault.
Pure comparative fault is in play when the plaintiff is partially to blame for the accident and resulting injuries. For instance, assume the plaintiff was found to be 10% at fault and the defendant was 90%. If the jury or judge awards the plaintiff damages for $100,000, the plaintiff may only recover $90,000. Pure comparative fault allows plaintiffs to recover at any fractional amount of fault, up to 99%.
For example, if one driver runs a red light and the second driver turns left too soon, resulting in a car accident. Both parties were negligent and each contributed to the accident. Let’s say the factfinder (either the judge or the jury) determines that the party who ran the red light was primarily responsible, at 60%, and the party who turned too soon was secondarily responsible, at 40%. The party who ran the red light would collect 40% or the damages and the other party would collect 60%. If the left turn driver suffered $100,000 in damages, he/she could recover $60,000 from the red light runner. Then, if the red light runner also suffered $100,000 in damages, he/she could recover $40,000.
Some states have a general cut-off point in place so that an injured plaintiff has a ceiling of fault and still be able to collect from another at-fault party. In states that follow a modified comparative negligence rule, an injured plaintiff can collect compensation from other at-fault parties as long as the plaintiff was less than 50% responsible for the accident that led to the injuries.
As you can see from this article, there are degrees of fault. If you have been in an accident and need legal advice, call our office. With personal injury attorneys in Wake Forest and Cary, we have experience in contributory negligence in NC. When it seems less than clear cut, you need an attorney who is knowledgeable of the nuances of the law. Call us at (919) 228-4487 or complete the form below.