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What is Contributory Negligence?

Gene Riddle   |  April 25, 2019   |  

If you live in North Carolina, you may have heard of contributory negligence. Contributory negligence is a law governing personal injury claims that is currently in force in 4 states and the District of Columbia.

Here’s what it means:

Contributory negligence bars a person from recovering compensation in a personal injury lawsuit if he or she is even partially at fault, thus contributing to their own injury.

For example:

What is contributory negligence_ - Riddle & BrantleySuppose a plaintiff is injured in an auto accident caused by another driver (the defendant) who ran a stop sign, but the plaintiff was speeding more than 15 miles over the speed limit. The insurance company handling the claim may determine that the excessive speed contributed to the accident. Therefore, the injured party may not be entitled to recover any damages from the other party who supposedly caused the accident.

In comparison, failure of the injured party to wear a seat belt is never a fact to be considered in determining contributory negligence because it has nothing to do with the proximate or real cause of the accident.

Attorney Gene Riddle calls contributory negligence the “black hole of legal doom,” and he’s not entirely joking. Check out this episode of “What’s It Mean, Gene?” to learn why:

YouTube video

Contributory negligence occurs when there has been some act or omission on the victim’s part which has contributed to the cause of the accident. In other words, it is a sharing of responsibility for damages when a person suffers partly by his or her own fault as well as the fault of the other party.

Contributory negligence can only be applied to a case where both parties, the plaintiff and the defendant, are guilty of negligence and the negligence causes injury or harm.

The brutal truth about contributory negligence

In effect, contributory negligence means that even if the other party is 99% responsible for the accident, if you’re just 1% responsible, you may not be entitled to compensation.

Contributory Negligence in North Carolina - Riddle & BrantleyNorth Carolina is one of only four states that practice contributory negligence in personal injury law. The District of Columbia also has contributory negligence law. Unlike these jurisdictions, all other states look at the percentage of fault involved for each party and calculate the damages accordingly.

For example, in a state that does not apply contributory negligence, a plaintiff’s damages may be apportioned depending upon the comparative negligence laws in that state which vary according to each state.

If your accident occurred in another state, we can help you determine how to proceed, and we can help find an attorney in that state to help us prosecute your case. However, in states like North Carolina where contributory negligence is in force, the reality is much harsher. A plaintiff found to be at fault in any way would be completely barred from any recovery.

Is there any way around the contributory negligence rule in North Carolina?

There are rare exceptions to contributory negligence in North Carolina - Riddle & BrantleyThe contributory negligence rule in North Carolina is almost legally bulletproof, but there are rare exceptions.

One of these exceptions may occur when the injured party is able to prove “gross negligence” or “last clear chance” on the part of the defendant.

Gross Negligence

Gross negligence is a rare legal concept in North Carolina personal injury law that can sometimes defeat a defense of contributory negligence.

Gross negligence is the conscious and deliberate disregard of the need to use reasonable care, which is likely to cause injury or harm to a person, property, or both.  It is extreme conduct when compared to ordinary negligence, which is a failure to exercise simple, reasonable care.

Gross negligence can override contributory negligence - Riddle & BrantleyGross negligence occurs when a defendant shows reckless disregard for the safety of a plaintiff.  For example, if the other driver is Driving While Impaired then that act is most probably grossly negligent conduct which would prevent that defendant driver from using contributory negligence as a defense.

Last Clear Chance

North Carolina also has a “last clear chance doctrine” which allows the victim to recover if he or she can prove the other party had the last clear chance to avoid the accident even the injury party was negligent too.  If the last clear chance doctrine can be proven, then contributory negligence will not apply. We have successfully litigated cases involving this last clear chance doctrine to recover compensation for our clients.

Contributory negligence can be a difficult legal hurdle to clear, but if you’ve been injured in an accident you should contact an experienced personal injury lawyer to determine your options.  Most importantly, just because the other side claims you are contributorily negligent, it does not mean it is so or that they can prove it.

Have you been injured in an accident?

North Carolina personal injury law is complex.  If you have been injured in an accident, you may need a North Carolina personal injury lawyer.  The attorneys at Riddle & Brantley law firm have more than 30 years of experience handling personal injury cases. We also have experience proving “gross negligence” and “last clear chance” to defeat the legal pitfalls of contributory negligence.

If you’ve been injured in an accident and believe another person’s negligence is responsible, we would love to help you. You can reach us at 1-800-525-7111 or fill out the free, no obligation form below. The consultation is free, and there are never any attorney fees unless we win your case and get you financial compensation.