There is a particular area of North Carolina law that can pose problems for plaintiffs in personal injury cases. North Carolina uses a “pure” contributory negligence rule, which prohibits a plaintiff from recovering any damages from a defendant in an accident if the plaintiff’s negligence is found to have contributed to the accident, even if only 1%. Those who are critical of pure contributory negligence refer to it as an “all or nothing” rule. The rule exists only in a few eastern locations, including Washington, D.C., Alabama, Maryland, and Virginia.
Examples of Contributory Negligence
You are stopped at a red light. Your light turns green, so you proceed into the intersection. A driver coming from the opposite direction runs the red light and slams into you, resulting in catastrophic injuries. You reveal that because your light was green, you did not look both ways before entering the intersection. The other driver’s lawyer asserts that you were contributorily negligent because you did not keep a proper lookout to determine whether you could enter the intersection safely. The jury finds that you were negligent in not looking both ways and that this played a role in causing the collision – you are entitled to zero damages.
In a real-life example from Maryland, a 20-year-old volunteer assistant soccer coach jumped up and grabbed a crossbar on the soccer goal. The goal had not been anchored, and it came crashing down on him, leading to multiple facial fractures. Though a jury agreed that the soccer organization had been negligent, they also found the volunteer coach’s actions to be negligent, and he was entitled to zero damages because of that.
People must exercise ordinary care for their own safety. As in the example above, drivers must keep a proper lookout at all times, even with a green light. Laws must be followed. For example, a pedestrian was struck by a vehicle. The driver’s lawyer proved that the pedestrian was walking on the wrong side of the road according to a city ordinance and that this was a factor in causing the collision. The pedestrian received nothing.
Who Supports the Contributory Negligence Doctrine?
The doctrine of contributory negligence has been challenged and debated for many years in the states that still apply it. Between 1966 and 1982, the Maryland legislature brought 21 different bills that sought to change the contributory negligence rule and none were successful.
Proponents of contributory negligence include the National Federation of Independent Business and a great many insurance companies. They claim that the elimination of pure contributory negligence would create “unaffordable insurance costs and encourage lawsuits of a frivolous nature.”
It is no surprise that insurance companies are in favor of any system that makes it more difficult for victims to receive just compensation.
Comparative Fault Systems
In other states, more reasonable rules prevail. Pure contributory negligence is one of three systems of comparative fault in the United States. The other two are pure comparative fault and modified comparative fault often thought of as “proportional responsibility” systems.
- Comparative fault kicks in if the plaintiff is partially to blame for the accident and resulting injuries. Assume the plaintiff was found 10% at fault and the defendant 90%. If the jury awards the plaintiff damages for $100,000, the plaintiff may only recover 90% or $90,000. Pure comparative fault allows plaintiffs to recover at any fractional amount of fault, up to 99%.
- Modified comparative fault only allows plaintiffs to recover if their fault is less than 50% or 51% (it varies by state). Essentially, a plaintiff may recover as long as the defendant’s degree of negligence was equal to or greater than that of the plaintiff.
Joint and Several Liability
Another factor to consider is a shared liability. When there is more than one liable defendant in an injury case, North Carolina laws allow for joint and several liability. If the total damages in an injury case are $100,000, both defendants are liable for $100,000 in damages, but there is no double recovery. The plaintiff may recover the full $100,000 from one of the defendants and the judgment is satisfied. The defendant that paid the full amount may then pursue recovery from the defendant who did not contribute to the judgment.
Overcoming North Carolina’s Contributory Negligence Hurdle
Contributory negligence can be a stumbling block in personal injury claims. But a good NC car accident attorney may be able to find ways to get you the compensation you deserve.
One defense to contributory negligence is called the “last clear chance doctrine.” If the plaintiff driver is in a position of peril and the defendant driver could have acted to avoid injuring the plaintiff (such as by braking), but does not, then the plaintiff can still recover even though his own negligence placed him in peril.
Ordinary contributory negligence is not a bar to recovery if a defendant was grossly negligent in causing the injury. Gross negligence is willful or wanton conduct, which means conduct that is done with bad intent or shows a reckless indifference to the safety of others. Drunk driving is a common example of negligence that will ordinarily be considered gross negligence.
To learn if contributory negligence is likely to affect your claim, speak to a North Carolina personal injury attorney at once. At Rhine Law Firm, P.C., we will review your individual case based on the unique facts involved, and let you know if you have a viable legal claim. Please call (910) 501-2474 for a free consultation with our legal team.