What is Contributory Fault?

Car accidents tend to be complicated. A lot of different factors can cause an accident to happen.

Let’s say that John and Joe are driving toward each other on the same road. John is texting, so he’s not really paying attention. Joe is in a rush, so he’s driving about 10 MPH over the posted speed limit. The road they’re driving on is riddled with potholes. As they approach one another, Sam, a pedestrian, decides that he doesn’t want to walk all the way down to the crosswalk. So, Sam jaywalks and begins to cross in the middle of the road, instead.

Of course, this doesn’t end well. Joe sees Sam the pedestrian and swerves to miss hitting him. He slams right into John, who is still more focused on his phone than the traffic around him. To make matters worse, the airbags in Joe’s car are defective and don’t deploy. Joe is killed, while Sam and John both get seriously hurt in the crash.

In this scenario, several factors led to this fatal car accident. Several parties potentially share responsibility for the crash and resulting damages. These include:

  • Joe and John, the drivers
  • Sam the pedestrian
  • The government agency responsible for the roads, and
  • The companies responsible for manufacturing, installing, and/or selling the faulty airbags.

How is fault allocated? Can the accident victims recover compensation even though they share fault? If so, how much can they get? The answers to these questions depend on where the accident took place. The results could be very different if this accident occurred in California as opposed to a state like Virginia.

Why? These states have different laws on the books when it comes to dealing with contributory fault. Here’s what you need to know.

Pure Contributory Negligence

In states with pure contributory fault laws, sharing any responsibility for an accident will completely bar you from recovering compensation for your injuries. It doesn’t matter if you were only five percent to blame. Sharing any degree of responsibility for an accident means that you’re prohibited from getting money other negligent parties.

Pure contributory fault jurisdictions include:

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

If you get hurt in an accident in any of these states and are evenly remotely to blame, you can’t file a lawsuit to recover compensation. So, if the accident above happened in Maryland, Sam, John, and Joe’s family would be out of luck.

Pure Comparative Negligence

Many states have adopted pure comparative negligence laws. In these states, which includes California, you won’t automatically be prohibited from seeking compensation if you are partly responsible for an accident. You can still file a lawsuit and seek damages as long as someone else is also at fault.

However, under comparative negligence rules, your damages will be reduced to reflect your role in the car accident.

States that have adopted pure comparative negligence laws include:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Florida
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota, and
  • Washington.

In the scenario above, let’s say that the crash happened in Los Angeles, CA. Under the state’s pure comparative fault rules, Joe, John, and Sam are all allocated 25 percent of the blame for their accident. (The remaining 25 percent is split between the government and airbag manufacturer). In that case, they’d all be able to receive up to 75 percent of their accident-related damages. Why? Because their damages would be reduced by 25 percent – or their role in causing the wreck.

Modified Comparative Negligence

Finally, other states have adopted modified comparative fault rules. In these states, you’re only prohibited from recovering compensation if your role in causing an accident exceeds a certain threshold. The threshold that bars recovery varies from state to state. It’s typically either 50 or 51 percent.

For example, if you get into a car accident in Philadelphia, you’ll be subject to Pennsylvania’s 51 percent threshold. That means that you can get money for your injuries as long as you don’t share more than half of the blame for an accident. You lose that right the moment you’re allocated 51 percent (or more) of the blame.

States that have adopted modified comparative negligence laws include:

  • Arkansas
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin, and
  • Wyoming.

Let’s say the car accident described above happened in Pennsylvania. Whether or not John, Sam, or Joe’s family could recover damages would hinge on how much fault is allocated to them. If Sam is allocated 60 percent of the blame, he would be barred from recovering anything, at all. If Joe and John each shared 15 percent of the blame, their damages would be reduced to reflect that.