Comparative Negligence

When you file a personal injury lawsuit, the ultimate goal is to prove the defendant in the case acted negligently and obtain a judgment for your damages. In many cases, the party at fault is clear. But what happens if your own conduct possibly contributed to your damages? For years, it was a complete defense to a claim if the injured party contributed in any way; a legal theory known as contributory negligence. Some common examples of contributory negligence include:

  • A passenger in a vehicle collision wasn’t wearing his or her seat belt
  • A driver failed to use their turn signal when changing lanes shortly before being rear-ended
  • A pedestrian that was jaywalking is struck by a car

But over the years the legal standard in many jurisdictions has shifted to a negligence theory that doesn’t automatically prevent you from collecting on a claim if you bear some of the responsibility for your injuries. This theory is known as comparative negligence.

This theory differs from contributory negligence in an important way. Under a contributory theory, if a court determines you are in any way negligent you cannot succeed in recovering on your personal injury claim. But under a comparative theory, the court will assign fault for an accident on a percentage basis. Under that system, you are found to be 10 percent at fault and the other party is 90 percent at fault, they would be liable for up to 90 percent of your damages. Consider the following example:

Jeff is standing on the sidewalk near a busy intersection with the intention of crossing the street. Jeff crosses the street despite the red “Do Not Walk” light and is promptly struck by a drunken driver. At trial, the court finds the drunken driver to be 90% at fault and Jeff 10% at fault due to disregarding the “Do Not Walk” light. Under a contributory negligence theory, Jeff would get nothing despite only being 10% at fault. But under a comparative theory, Jeff could collect 90% of the damages he proved at trial. 

Comparative Negligence vs. Contributory Negligence Rules in MA

Like most states, Massachusetts has adopted a comparative negligence rule. This rule was enacted by the state legislature in order to combat the unjust outcomes that contributory negligence laws often brought about. Massachusetts law allows you to recover compensation as long as you prove to the court that the other party is at least 51% liable for your damages. If you are able to prove that the other party was at least 51%at fault, you will recover the amount of damages you are able to prove at trial minus your percentage of fault. For example, if you prove you suffered damages of $100,000 and the court finds the other party 90% at fault, you will receive a judgment for $90,000.

When it comes to personal injury claims, it is your attorney’s job to show a jury that the other party was at fault. An experienced attorney will be able to rely on their experience and Massachusetts case law to show a jury that your responsibility for your own damages was minimal at best.

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