Contributory Negligence, Explained

Imagine that you were driving downtown one day and were hit by another vehicle. You were fairly badly injured, and the combined costs of your medical bills, lost work time, and damage to your car total in the tens of thousands. To try to recover some of your costs, you file suit against the driver who hit you. While you sincerely believed the other driver to be completely at fault, the judge makes a finding that 10% of the cause of the accident was due to your own negligence. As a result of this finding, you are barred from receiving anything.

Imagine that you were driving downtown one day and were hit by another vehicle. You were fairly badly injured, and the combined costs of your medical bills, lost work time, and damage to your car total in the tens of thousands. To try to recover some of your costs, you file suit against the driver who hit you. While you sincerely believed the other driver to be completely at fault, the judge makes a finding that 10% of the cause of the accident was due to your own negligence. As a result of this finding, you are barred from receiving anything. The law of contributory negligence causes this rather unfair result.

In North Carolina, contributory negligence is a law, derived from the old common law brought over from England, that allows insurance companies and defendants in tort lawsuits to completely bar a claim based on the insured's or plaintiff's own negligent actions. Even if the plaintiff is found to have been only 1% at fault, her claim will be barred and she will be prevented from recovering any damages.

Out of all 50 states, only North Carolina, DC, and three other states follow the contributory negligence law. Most states follow a law called comparative negligence, where the fact finder-typically the jury-will determine your damages based on the negligence of each party. For example, if you are 30% negligent and the other driver was 70% negligent, the jury may award you up to 70% of the damages in a comparative negligence state (whereas in North Carolina, you would receive nothing). Numerous attempts to change the contributory negligence law in North Carolina have been unsuccessful, thus far.

Still, there are a few exceptions to contributory negligence in North Carolina. If the defendant has acted wantonly, willfully, or maliciously-such as getting behind the wheel of the car inebriated, then the defendant cannot bar the plaintiff's claims based on contributory negligence. The "last clear chance" is another exception where, if the plaintiff can prove that the defendant had the last clear chance to avoid the oncoming accident and failed to do so, the defendant can still be held liable for her actions despite the plaintiff's contributory negligence.

Sometimes, insurance companies may deny claims based on contributory negligence, yet there may be a relevant exception available to the claimant. If you are unsure of whether your claim will be barred, and whether you can still recover despite possible contributory negligence, a reliable attorney can clarify that law and how it might apply in your situation. To speak with a attorney today, please give our Concord, NC office a call.

This article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered or substituted as legal advice.