You probably already know that if you have been injured in an accident caused by a negligent driver, you can hold them liable for your damages. This is the legal principle behind most personal injury lawsuits, and it can be crucial for helping badly injured people and their families cope with the long, difficult aftermath of a serious car accident.
But negligence and causation are complicated subjects. Crash investigators often have trouble pinning down just one cause of an accident, and they often find that more than one driver acted negligently in the moments before the collision. In these cases, the amount of compensation an injured party can recover is affected by another legal principle known as comparative negligence.
Without comparative negligence
To understand comparative negligence, it may be important to understand what personal injury law was like before comparative negligence law was developed.
Traditionally, an injured person was barred from recovering anything in a personal injury lawsuit if they were found to have contributed fault to the accident.
For example, imagine that Fred makes a right turn at an intersection when he is struck by another car driven by Daphne. Fred is badly injured and suffers $100,000 in damages. He files suit against Daphne.
A court examines the evidence and determines that Daphne was speeding and was the main cause of the accident, but also that Fred failed to properly signal his turn, and that this contributed to the accident. Under the traditional rules, Fred would be barred from recovery because his negligence contributed to the accident.
With comparative negligence
This traditional approach can be very harsh. Over time, most states modified their laws to allow injured people to recover compensation if they were partly at fault.
Under Michigan law, an injured person can recover compensation so long as they bore no more than 50% of the fault. However, their recovery is reduced in proportion to their share of fault.
So, if the example above were to happen in Michigan, a court would examine the evidence and determine what percentage of fault Fred and Daphne held for the accident. A court might decide that Daphne holds 75% of the fault because she was speeding, and Fred holds 25% of the fault because he didn’t signal his turn.
In this case, Fred would be able to recover from Daphne, but his compensation would be reduced by 25% — the same percentage as his fault. This means that instead of recovering the full $100,000, he could recover only $75,000.
Pluses and minuses
If you or someone you love has been badly injured in a car accident, comparative negligence has pluses and minuses. On the one hand, comparative negligence allows you to recover much-needed compensation to help you pay for medical bills and other damages. You might not have this opportunity in states that don’t have a comparative negligence law.
However, comparative negligence can be used against you. Defendants can use comparative negligence laws to limit the amount they must pay you. And this isn’t just a matter for the courtroom: Even if you don’t go to court, the other driver’s insurance companies may rely on comparative negligence law in an effort to limit the amount it pays you.
Injured people and their families need all the compensation they can get in order to carry on after a life-changing accident. As they begin the process of seeking compensation, it’s wise to speak to experienced professionals to understand how comparative negligence and other legal principles may apply to the facts of their cases.