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How Can Contributory Negligence Affect My Case?


Contributory negligence is a legal doctrine you may have to navigate during a personal injury lawsuit in Virginia. It is a common type of defense a defendant might use to dispute liability and potentially shrink your compensatory award – or eliminate it completely. Learning about contributory negligence and the state’s related law could help you understand what to expect during your claim.

What is contributory negligence?

What Is Contributory Negligence?

Contributory negligence refers to a plaintiff’s own contributions to his or her injuries. Many personal injury claims are not black and white. They involve shared fault among multiple parties, creating gray areas. One of these gray areas is a plaintiff’s negligence. Sometimes, the victim claiming damages contributed to the accident. If a plaintiff is partially at fault for the injuries or damages in question, he or she may have lower odds of recovering compensation. In Virginia, those odds can drop to 0% under the state’s pure contributory negligence law.

Most states have done away with pure contributory negligence laws due to their harsh consequences for plaintiffs. Pure contributory negligence rules state that if a plaintiff contributed at all to the accident, he or she will lose any right to financial recovery. Even 1% of fault could bar a plaintiff from receiving compensation from the defendant. Although most states have transitioned to a more enlightened version of the rule, known as comparative negligence, Virginia still abides by a pure contributory negligence law.

Virginia’s contributory negligence law states that a defendant must bear 100% of fault for an accident to be liable for a victim’s damages. Any degree of fault by the victim will take away his or her right to obtain compensation entirely. An exception to the rule exists in Virginia, however, if you were riding in a common carrier. If you suffer injuries while on a carrier such as a bus or airplane, contributory negligence will not bar you from recovering from the carrier if it violated a safety code

What Is Comparative Negligence?

Only a few states still use the contributory negligence system: Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, Alabama and Washington D.C. Other states use some version of a comparative negligence law instead. Comparative negligence laws are not as strict. They hold that even if a plaintiff slightly contributes to his or her injuries, he or she could walk away with partial compensation from the defendant.

In comparative negligence states, the courts will diminish the plaintiff’s recovery by an amount equivalent to his or her percentage of fault. Twenty-five percent comparative fault, for example, would lead to a plaintiff taking away $75,000 of a $100,000 jury verdict. The defendant would only have to pay 75% of the award based on his or her 75% of fault for the injuries. Pure comparative negligence allows plaintiffs to recover even with up to 99% fault, while modified comparative negligence states cap recovery ability, often at 49 to 51%. After this point, the plaintiff will be unable to recover.

How Could Your Negligence Impact Your Case?

Contributory negligence could significantly impact your case in Virginia. The state’s severe negligence law means you could lose 100% of a compensatory award if the defendant can prove you contributed to the accident in any way, to any degree. It is critical to use an attorney to help you combat a contributory negligence defense. Otherwise, you could receive $0 for your injuries and damages even if you have proof of the other party’s fault.

A personal injury lawyer in Virginia may be able to investigate your accident, collect evidence to prove the defendant’s negligence, file a demand letter and navigate the state’s pure contributory negligence law on your behalf. An attorney will understand the ins and outs of this legal theory and how to combat a contributory negligence defense using aggressive legal tactics. After any accident in Virginia, contact a personal injury lawyer to help you with your case.