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What Is Contributory Fault?

Generally speaking, if another party is responsible for an accident that causes you to suffer an injury, you are likely entitled to compensation. But what happens if the fault is shared by both you and the other party? Who is entitled to compensation in a scenario where both parties are at least partially to blame?

In 1872, the state of California endeavored to answer this tricky question by creating a rule known as contributory fault.

What Is Contributory Fault?

The rule of contributory fault (or contributory negligence) states that anyone who is found to be even slightly to blame for an accident is barred from receiving any compensation for it. A fault rate of as little as 1% could prevent you from obtaining compensation. 

There are a few states which still use contributory fault rules to determine the outcome of civil lawsuits. However, California is not one of them. The Golden State was forced to end the use of contributory fault in 1975 after a landmark California Supreme Court case known as Li v. Yellow Cab Co.

Li v. Yellow Cab Co.

In 1968, the vehicles of Nga Li (plaintiff) and a driver for Yellow Cab Co. (defendant) collided near downtown Los Angeles. After an investigation, both drivers were found to have acted negligently. The plaintiff had swerved across three lanes of traffic to enter a gas station. Meanwhile, the defendant’s driver was traveling well above the speed limit and ran a yellow light moments before striking the plaintiff.

The defendant’s attorneys argued that the plaintiff’s negligent actions prevented her from recovering compensation under California’s contributory fault rules. The court disagreed. After much deliberation, the all-or-nothing approach to negligence was dropped in favor of a new option – comparative fault (or comparative negligence).

What Is Comparative Fault?

Under comparative fault, individuals who are partially to blame for an accident may still be able to recover a financial settlement. However, the compensation awarded will be scaled down in proportion to the negligence of the plaintiff.

If, for instance, you are involved in a bicycle accident in which 75 percent of the blame is attributable to the other party, with you picking up the remaining 25 percent, you would be entitled to recover 75 percent of the damages. If the total damages you suffered in the accident amounted to $100,000, California’s comparative fault rules would allow you to recover $75,000.

Some states use modified comparative fault rules. In Pennsylvania, for example, you can be barred from recovering compensation if more than 50 or 51 percent of the blame for a car accident can be attributed to you. California, however, uses pure comparative fault laws. These rules allow you to seek compensation from any other at-fault party – even if you are 80 or 90 percent to blame for the incident.

How Is Fault Determined in California Personal Injury Cases?

With all of this discussion about fault, you are probably interested in learning more about exactly how it is attributed. Well, in the state of California, there are two primary methods of determining fault. They are:

Negligence

To show that the other party was to blame for your accident, you can prove that they acted negligently. The state of California operates on what is known as a “reasonable person” standard when it comes to negligence. If you can demonstrate that the other individual acted with less care or caution than an otherwise reasonable person would, they will almost certainly be found to be at fault for the accident.

Statute Violations

If the other party violates the law when your accident occurred, they will most likely receive at least some of the blame. This method of attributing fault is particularly common in car accident cases where the other driver running a red light or speeding through a school zone is a direct contributor to the eventual collision.

Of course, as you attempt to use these methods to attribute blame to the other party, they may be doing the same to you. If you are both found to be at fault for the accident, a judge or jury will likely rule on exactly how much blame can be attributed to each of you. Any damages will then be diminished accordingly.

Filing and working through personal injury cases in the state of California is no easy task. As such, you would be well-advised to hire an experienced attorney to help you with the process. Your ability to recover the money you need and deserve could depend on it.

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