Who’s at Fault in a Car Accident? A Look At Comparative Negligence Examples

You’ve just been in a car accident, but who’s at fault isn’t exactly clear. Maybe you and the other driver each did something to contribute to the accident. Shared fault rules depend on where the car accident took place and several situational factors. When both parties are shown to be at fault, it’s called “comparative negligence.” Here’s a closer look at what it means.

Comparative negligence can also be referred to as a “partial defense,” where the defendant can claim the plaintiff was also partially at fault for the accident. Different states have different rules when it comes to comparative negligence or partial defense. Most states have adopted one of the following versions:

  1. Pure Comparative Negligence
    In pure comparative negligence states, accident victims can recover some compensation for their injuries no matter how negligent they were, even when their degree of fault is higher than the defendant’s degree of fault. Pure comparative negligence rules are followed in California, Florida and New York, to name a few states.
  2. Modified Comparative Negligence
    In modified comparative negligence states, the accident victim’s ability to recover compensation is more limited. An accident victim can only recover damages if his or her fault is less than the defendant. That means the accident victim must be less than half responsible for the accident. Modified comparative negligence rules are followed in Colorado and Georgia, for example.
  3. Modified Comparative Negligence – Slight vs. Gross Rule
    This rule states that rather than assigning percentages to each party’s portion of fault, each driver’s negligence must be no more than “slight” compared to the other driver. The interpretation of “slight” and “gross” is, of course, much more subjective and is done on a case-by-case basis. For example, say a pedestrian runs into a crosswalk and is struck by a drunk driver. That pedestrian’s negligence may be found to be “slight” compared to the negligence of the drunk driver. This type of rule is only used in one state, South Dakota.
  4. Contributory Negligence
    Contributory negligence rules prohibit an accident victim from recovering any damage if the defendant can prove the plaintiff acted negligently and contributed to the accident in any way. This particular rule is the most severe, as it denies any compensation to accident victims even if their degree of fault is slight. Only a handful of states still following this rule, including Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

What Does It Mean to Be “Negligent”?

Being negligent in an accident means that the victim contributed in some way to the accident occurring. In other words, the victim did not take reasonable care to protect himself or herself, or others when it comes to the basic rules of the road. Therefore, the victim is at least partially responsible for his or her own injuries. Examples of negligence might include:

  • Speeding
  • Riding with a driver who’s drunk, reckless or sleepy
  • Riding in a car that’s defective
  • Interfering with the driver’s ability to operate the vehicle
  • Jaywalking or making sudden moves as a pedestrian

It’s on the defendant to show that the comparative negligence of the plaintiff contributed to the accident in some way. However, if the plaintiff’s behavior contributed to injuries but didn’t actually cause the accident, the defendant may not have a case.

How Do I Know If I Have a Comparative Negligence Case?

Figuring out partial fault in an accident can be complicated and might appear subjective in many cases. It can be challenging to navigate the amount either driver is at fault. Basically, in order to win a negligence case, the following facts have to be present and proved:

  • The defendant owes a duty of care to the plaintiff.
  • The duty of care was breached.
  • There’s a causal connection between the defendant’s actions and your injury.
  • The negligence caused harm or damage.

It’s probably a good idea to consult a personal injury attorney to help you figure out if you have a viable case, and to know exactly what rules are following in your state.

Comparative Negligence Example

Cindy is driving her car and makes an illegal U-turn at an intersection. Just as she’s doing that, Mike runs a stop sign coming in the opposite direction and hits Cindy’s car. Both Cindy and Mike sustain injuries from the accident – Cindy’s and Mike’s injuries each total $10,000. After reviewing all the evidence, the court decides that Mike is 51% at fault and Cindy is 49% at fault. So how would this play out in terms of the three main types of negligence?

Pure Comparative Negligence: Both Cindy and Mike could collect a portion of their damages according to their respective percentages of fault. Mandy could collect 51%, or $5,100. Mike could collect 49%, or $4,900.

Modified Comparative Negligence: Mike would not be able to collect damages since he was found 51% responsible for the accident. Mandy could collect 51%, or $5,100.

Contributory Negligence: Since both Cindy and Mike were found to be partially at fault in the accident, no matter what the percentages are, neither one could collect any damages.