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Contributory Negligence

“Contributory negligence” is one of those legal terms that tends to make a non-lawyer’s eyes glaze over. But despite its obscure-sounding name, contributory negligence is a legal concept that has an enormous impact on personal injury cases in North Carolina (and a few other states), which is why you need to understand what it means if you’ve been injured. 

While injured individuals can still get some compensation from personal injury claims even if they are partly or even mostly at fault in some states, this is (with a few exceptions) generally not the case in North Carolina. Our state’s strict contributory negligence rule, unfortunately, means that an entire claim could be wiped out far more easily than most other states, thereby leaving claimants with no way to recover compensation for their serious injuries.

In this blog post, we’ll talk about what contributory negligence means, why it’s so important, and how you can protect yourself.

What Is Negligence?

accident caused by negligence

To understand what contributory negligence means, we should start out by defining the term “negligence,” an important concept in the world of personal injury law. The outcome of every personal injury lawsuit hinges on the idea of negligence and whether someone acted in a negligent manner. 

Of course, you probably know what the word “negligent” means in an everyday sense if you’re reading this. The legal definition of negligence isn’t all that different from the everyday definition of the word — it’s just a little more complicated (as most things involving the law tend to be). 

Under the law, negligence is a failure to behave with the reasonable level of care that an ordinarily prudent person would exercise under the same or similar circumstances. In other words, if a person finds themselves involved in a personal injury lawsuit, the jury must essentially answer two questions to determine if the person was negligent: 

  • What would a typical, reasonable person have done to act in a safe manner? 
  • Did the defendant fail to act in a safe manner? 

In order to successfully recover compensation in a negligence claim—say, after a car accident, slip and fall, or other personal injury incident—a plaintiff must show that:

  • The person who caused their injury had a duty to exercise reasonable care.
  • They failed to do so—and thus acted negligently.
  • Such failure caused (directly or indirectly) injury to the plaintiff.

Although this sounds simple on paper, it’s not always straightforward to decide which actions constitute negligence. Everyone has their own reasons and motivations for their actions, and there is no magic handbook that tells us exactly what constitutes “reasonable” behavior in every situation. Instead, it’s up to judges and juries to decide what actions are reasonable in a specific circumstance. 

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Contributory Negligence Versus Comparative Negligence 

writing a document regarding contributory negligence

Now that we know what negligence means in a legal sense, let’s talk about the “contributory” part. There are two options for how courts proceed once they determine who is at fault for an accident or injury in a personal injury lawsuit. 

With comparative fault, the plaintiff (the injured victim in a personal injury case) can receive compensation from a lawsuit based on what percent the defendant was at fault. In other words, if the defendant was 50 percent responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries, then the plaintiff can recover up to 50 percent of the total damages. 

With contributory negligence (which is technically called “pure contributory negligence”), the plaintiff can’t recover anything if they were even slightly at fault for their injuries. Even if the accident was 99 percent the defendant’s fault and only 1 percent the plaintiff’s fault, the plaintiff’s contributory negligence bars them from any right to compensation.

Which theory the courts apply varies from state to state. Only five jurisdictions use the pure contributory negligence rule: Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. The other 46 states all apply comparative fault to some degree.

If contributory negligence sounds like a terrible deal for injury victims compared to comparative fault, that’s because it is. Unfortunately, since the system of negligence that applies to your case depends on the jurisdiction where you suffered your injuries, there’s nothing you can do about it.

Exceptions to Contributory Negligence

working with a lawyer to determine exceptions to contributory negligence

While contributory negligence remains a harsh system, North Carolina law does provide some exceptions to this standard to reduce the likelihood of an excessively unjust ruling against an injured party. There are a few ways you can overcome a contributory negligence defense in court.

Gross Negligence Doctrine

If the defendant’s willful or wanton conduct caused your injuries, then the defendant can’t claim contributory negligence. In essence, it means that if the defendant intentionally fails to exercise reasonable care—or in other words, acted with reckless disregard—then your own negligence won’t bar you from recovery.

This might come into play in a drunk driving case, for example, with a grossly negligent intoxicated driver traveling significantly over the speed limit. Even if you would otherwise be considered contributorily negligent (for example, you were traveling 5 miles per hour over the speed limit or failed to signal a turn), you could still get compensation for your damages.

Last Clear Chance Rule

Alternatively, if you can show that the defendant had the last clear chance to avoid an accident and failed to do so, then the defendant can still be held accountable, even under contributory negligence. 

Last Clear Chance is a defense to the defense of contributory negligence. However, the plaintiff must show that, although she may have had some fault for the incident, the defendant had the time and the means to still avoid the incident but failed to do so. This is difficult to prove.

Working With Contributory Negligence 

hiring an experienced personal injury attorney

So, if you suffered your injuries in North Carolina, you’re stuck working under the contributory negligence rule. That means if you want to get fair compensation through a personal injury lawsuit, you’ll need to either show that the defendant was entirely at fault for your injuries, or that your situation qualifies for an exception. 

The other party’s insurance company knows they only need to show that you were at least 1 percent at fault for the accident to win the case, so they will be looking for any possible excuse to do so from the very beginning. One piece of ambiguous evidence, or misstatement you make when speaking with the claims adjuster, could threaten your entire recovery.

What can you do to help your case? 

The best thing you can do to improve your chances of a successful financial recovery is to hire an experienced personal injury lawyer who can give you candid advice and fight on your behalf in court. 

RELATED: Here’s What You Should Expect in a Personal Injury Deposition

Benefits of Hiring an Attorney

Having an experienced attorney advocate on your side who can prepare for and defend against their efforts can be extremely helpful. 

A qualified attorney should be able to give you an honest and realistic assessment of your odds of winning your case. Even if it’s disappointing to find out that you have only a small chance of successfully recovering compensation for your injuries, it is better to figure this out before you ever set foot in a courtroom rather than after you’ve sunk countless hours (and dollars) into preparing legal paperwork, gathering evidence, and figuring out how to represent yourself at trial. 

And although it’s possible to represent yourself in a personal injury lawsuit, it is often an uphill battle for victims. This is especially true in jurisdictions like North Carolina that use the pure contributory negligence rule. Meanwhile, contacting an experienced personal injury attorney for a consultation should be free and could make all the difference for your case. 

Contact Myers Law Firm if You’ve Been Injured in Mecklenburg County

At Myers Law Firm, we work to demand justice and fair compensation for the victims of senseless injuries. If you or a loved one has been injured due to someone else’s negligence, we’re here to help. If you choose us to represent you, we’ll act as your advocate and use our legal experience to fight relentlessly on your behalf until your case reaches a resolution. 

Call our offices today at (888) 376-2889 or fill out the contact form on our website to schedule your free initial consultation with us. We’ll use this time to get to know you, learn about your situation, and inform you about your legal options so you can go forward with confidence. 

The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.

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