Contributory Negligence in Personal Injury Cases


If you suffer an injury and want to be compensated for lost wages or non-economic damages, you first need to determine who was at fault for the personal injury. The problem is that accidents, like life, are often messy and complicated. There may not be just one person entirely at fault. If the court finds you to have displayed “contributory negligence” at the time of the injury, they may choose to reduce the monetary compensation you will be able to recover.

It’s important to understand contributory negligence going into your case so that you can know if it applies to your situation and how to defend against such a claim.

What Does Contributory Negligence Mean?

So, what is contributory negligence? The contributory negligence definition is relatively straightforward — it is the argument or finding that the plaintiff contributed to their personal injury through their own negligence. Contributory negligence states that in such findings, the defendant may not have to pay as much to the plaintiff for their injury. In some instances, the defendant may not be required to pay anything at all. 

The rule of contributory negligence is not always used in court, as it can lead to extreme or unfair court rulings. Many judges prefer to use comparative negligence instead of absolute contributory negligence for a more nuanced case.

How Does It Compare To Comparative Negligence?

Comparative negligence is a type of contributory negligence. It is sometimes referred to as “non-absolute contributory negligence” or “modified contributory negligence.” By the rule of comparative negligence, the court determines the percentage of negligence on the part of the plaintiff that contributed to the injury. This may mean that the plaintiff will receive less than their request, but a percentage of that amount that is proportional to the defendant’s fault.

How Do Courts Determine Percentage of Negligence In Lawsuits?

To determine the percentage of negligence in lawsuits, the jury or judge will review evidence of negligence on the part of both the plaintiff and the defendant to come to a conclusion about the percentage of fault. They may take into account suggestions from one or both attorneys. The judge will also allow the plaintiff to reference past findings that might be relevant to their case. Upon completing this review, the jury or judge will assign a percentage of fault to both parties. The plaintiff will receive the percentage of their award based on the defendant’s fault in the case.

Examples of Personal Injury Lawsuits Where Contributory Negligence Comes Into Play

Most personal injury cases involve some amount of contributory negligence. These are complex, often traumatizing events in which one small choice or movement can affect your entire life. So what does contributory negligence look like? Let’s consider some examples:

Wrongful Death Cases

Aside from car accidents, workplace accidents are one common cause of a wrongful death lawsuit. According to the CDC’s Mortality Data report in 2020, 200,955 deaths were attributed to unintentional injury, making it the fourth most common cause of death in the U.S. Consider a situation in which a construction worker died on a site when an improperly secured beam fell on them. The construction worker’s surviving family would likely have a case for wrongful death. However, one contributory negligence example would be the construction worker failing to take standard safety precautions, such as wearing a hard hat on-site.

Car, Truck, or Motorcycle Accidents

In 2020, motor vehicle traffic accidents resulted in 40,698 deaths. Contributory negligence most frequently comes up with car, truck, or motorcycle accidents. Perhaps a collision occurs when a speeding car rear-ends another vehicle about to turn without using a turn signal, resulting in a back injury. Regardless of which party was the plaintiff of the case, contributory negligence would likely be found. The driver who rear-ended the turning car was speeding, which affected their reaction time. The driver who was rear-ended neglected to use their turn signal, meaning the driver behind them had no idea they would slow down to turn.

Animal Bites

The WHO reports that 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year, and 3%–18% then develop infections after the bite. In most cases, if a pet bites you, the pet’s owner will be found liable for any damages you suffer. You may have heard of incidents of dogs getting loose and running across the yard to bite someone on the sidewalk or biting a visitor to their owner’s house.

However, there may be some cases in which the defense can claim contributory negligence. If you trespassed on the property or if you immediately reached out to pet a strange (leashed) dog without asking the owner if the dog was friendly, these incidents may be considered contributory negligence.

What Is Evidence of Negligence?

When a plaintiff argues that the defendant’s negligence caused their injury, they must provide evidence to demonstrate four key categories:

  • Duty — the standard of care that was required
  • Breach — how the defendant failed to uphold that standard of care
  • Causation — how that breach was the actual cause of the plaintiff’s injury
  • Damages — proof that the plaintiff suffered damages that can be quantified in the amount they request

Contributory negligence is held to the same standard. The defendant must prove that the plaintiff had a duty to take certain precautions, that they failed to do so, and that this failure contributed to their injury and should be deducted from the compensation awarded.

What States Follow a Contributory Negligence Model?

Contributory negligence can make a case challenging and extreme in some cases, which is why it is not widely used today. When it comes to comparative negligence versus contributory negligence, most courts prefer to follow the comparative negligence model. However, these five states still hold to contributory negligence:

  • Alabama
  • Maryland
  • North Carolina
  • Virginia
  • Washington, D.C.

In Cincinnati, courts are more likely to use comparative negligence. Nonetheless, if your personal injury case falls under the jurisdiction of any of the relevant states, it’s good to find an attorney who understands contributory negligence.

How To Know If You Could Have Contributory Fault

Are you worried about contributory fault in your case? Consider the duty, breach, causation, and damages relevant to your situation. Most importantly, work with a personal injury attorney who can help you determine the best outcome for your personal injury lawsuit. We can handle at-fault accidents, car accidents where personal injuries are sustained, and more. We will fight for your personal injury case. Contact us today to learn more or to schedule a free consultation with us.

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If you have been injured or have lost a loved one as a result of another person's negligence, you deserve to be fully compensated for your losses. The simple fact is that you should not be forced to pay the price for another person's careless or reckless actions.