Guest Post: Comparative Negligence vs. Contributory Negligence

[Note from Brian: This post is a guest post from my good friend Nelson Johnson, a Cullman, Alabama personal injury attorney.]

In this article, I want to explain the difference between Contributory Negligence and Comparative Negligence. (Also known as Comparative Fault) This is an important legal concept that you may not even know exists but determines if and how much a person may recover for injuries sustained as a result of another person’s negligence. Alabama is one of the only four (4) States that still follows the rule of Contributory Negligence. The others are Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. The Capitol of the United States, Washington D.C., also follows this rule. By contrast, the vast majority of States have adopted the rule of Comparative Negligence.

What is Contributory Negligence?

Contributory Negligence is a legal concept that bars a person’s recovery for damages in a negligence case if they are found to be even 1% at fault for the accident that caused their injuries. This drastic and archaic rule can have harsh consequences where one person is only minimally liable for the accident and is completely prevented from recovering for any of the damages they suffered. 

What is Comparative Negligence?

Comparative Fault instead allows a person to recover as long as they are not solely at fault for the accident that caused their injuries. There are two versions of Comparative Fault, Pure Comparative Fault and Modified Comparative Fault. California is a Pure Comparative Fault State. This means that a person can still recover for the percentage they were not at fault for the accident even if they are 99% at fault. There are Thirteen States in total that follow the Pure Comparative Fault system. The other version of Comparative Fault is referred to as Modified Comparative fault.  The remaining 33 States have adopted the Modified Comparative Fault States, although there is a split among these 33 States as to what the percentage cut-off should be for allowing recovery. In 13 States, including Georgia, you must be less than 50% at fault to recover, and in the other 21 States, you must be less than 51% at fault to recover.

Why Having Comparative Fault Matters

As stated previously though, the recovery is not for the full amount of what the jury awards, instead you can only recover for the percentage that you were not at fault. So, for example, if you were injured in a car accident and you are in a jurisdiction that recognizes Comparative Negligence and the Jury awarded you $100,000 in damages but found that you were 30% at fault for the accident which caused your injuries then you would only recover $70,000.00. This is significantly better than a Contributory Negligence State where your recovery would be $0.00 under those same facts.

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