Can My Claim Be Dismissed if The Accident Was Partly My Fault?

In Washington, DC, if you were found to have been even one percent at fault for an accident that injured you, the insurance company may accuse you of “contributory negligence.”  If successful in court, the liable defendant (and their insurance company) can dismiss your case.

Contributory versus Comparative Negligence

There are two ways to apply liability in personal injury law: comparative negligence and contributory negligence. For example, in most states, the former (comparative) asserts  that if one party is 80 percent responsible for the accident, and the other is 20 percent liable, then each party is then responsible for paying his or her respective portion of the damages.  Under contributory negligence, however, if one person involved in the accident contributed to the mishap in any way, they get no damages at all. Claim Dismissal if the Accident is Partly my Fault? For example, Jane and John were driving two separate cars at dusk.  John, because he could see well, hadn’t yet turned on his headlights.  Jane, on the other hand, had her headlights on.  When rounding a curve, Jane drifted into John’s lane, and they collided.  Since John’s headlights were off, even if Jane’s action was the proximate cause of the accident, he contributed a small part to the accident because his headlights were off.  In a “comparative” state, John would likely bear, for example, 25 percent of the blame because Jane couldn’t see as John’s vehicle with headlights off.  In a comparative state, John could only recover 75 percent of the total damages and would have to pay the remaining 25 percent himself. In the District of Columbia, however, which observes contributory negligence, John cannot usually win any damages, because the fact that his headlights were not on means he contributed “in some part” to the accident, even if Jane was primarily at fault.

How Does Contributory Negligence Endanger a Personal Injury Case?

Neighboring Maryland and Virginia (as well as Alabama and North Carolina) are the only remaining U.S. states in which the contributory negligence method applies to injury law if the injured party failed to exercise “reasonable care” in causing the accident in which they were injured.  The other 46 states use comparative negligence in determining damage awards. One exception that can mitigate contributory negligence occurs if the injured plaintiff’s attorney can prove that the defendant also did not exercise reasonable care, or acted with willful intent to injure the victim.  This is because both parties are held to the same standards of behavior to not harm others.  So, to use the John and Jane example, if Jane was convicted of driving recklessly, even with her headlights on, contributory negligence can be averted, since she did not fulfill her legal duty to drive in a manner that protects others.