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Contributory Fault vs. Comparative Fault: What’s the Difference?

Sometimes multiple people are responsible for causing an accident. There are two ways states approach liability when this happens. Some states have what are known as contributory fault laws, while others have comparative fault rules. These laws can be critical in determining (a) whether you can recover compensation and (b) how much, if you are partly responsible for an accident.

Contributory Negligence Bars All Recovery

Only four states in the country have “pure contributory negligence” laws on the books. Under a pure contributory fault system, you’re prohibited from recovering compensation if you share any blame for an accident. You can’t seek money for your injuries, even if you’re only allocated one percent of the fault for your accident.

So, if you’re on vacation in Maryland or Virginia and get hurt, you’ll be barred from getting money if you contributed to the accident that caused your injuries. 

There are certain exceptions to this very strict rule. You might be able to overcome the pure contributory negligence rules if you can prove that the person who hurt you had the last clear chance to avoid the accident, or if the intentionally caused you harm.

Comparative Fault Means You Can Get Some Money If You Share Blame

In California, the state adheres to a pure comparative fault system. This means that you can recover compensation if you’re injured and share some of the blame for your accident. This is true, even if you’re 99 percent at fault. However, your damages will be adjusted to reflect your degree of fault.

So, for example, let’s say you get into a car accident in Los Angeles. You’re allocated 20 percent of the blame because you were speeding at the time of the collision. You sustain $10,000 in damages. Under California’s comparative fault system, you’ll be able to recover a maximum of $8,000. Why? Your damages ($10,000) have to be reduced by the percentage of fault allocated to you (20 percent).

Modified Comparative Fault Rules Split the Difference

There’s actually a third fault system that’s been adopted by many states. Under a modified comparative fault rule, you’re not automatically barred from recovering compensation if you are partly to blame for an accident.

However, you can only share so much of the blame if you want to get money for your injuries. This is known as a bar to recovery. The threshold at which your right to seek compensation no longer exists varies from state to state. It’s generally 50 or 51 percent. If you’re allocated most of the fault for an accident, you lose the right to demand compensation.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you get into a car accident in Texas. Under Texas’s modified comparative fault system, the bar to recovery is 51 percent. You can seek compensation as long as you don’t share more than 50 percent of the blame for an accident. If you’re allocated 50 percent of the blame, your damages must be reduced by 50 percent. If you’re allocated 51 percent of the blame, you’ll be prohibited from getting any money from other liable parties, at all.

How Is Fault Allocated Between Liable Parties?

Car accidents tend to happen because of negligence and carelessness. Negligence means that you had a responsibility to act in a way that wouldn’t pose a threat to others, but failed to do so. You can be liable for negligence when, as a result of your actions or inaction, someone gets hurt.

An investigation is necessary to determine (a) why an accident happened and (b) who’s responsible. When more than one party’s negligence contributes to an accident, it’s necessary to allocate liability among them. The more your negligence contributes to an accident, the more fault (and liability) you’ll be allocated.

The more fault you share, the less money you can get. In contributory negligence states and some modified comparative fault states, you can be prohibited from getting anything, at all.

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