Can You Still Seek Recovery If You’re Partially to Blame?
It’s fairly common for injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident to be caused by a number of factors. Suppose a motorist causes an accident by making an illegal turn, but the driver of the other car isn’t wearing a seat belt. But for the improper turn, the accident would not have happened. However, if everyone had been wearing seat belts, the injuries would not have been as severe. When both parties engage in some type of negligence that ultimately leads to injury, how is liability allocated?
In New Jersey, as in all states, the legal principle that applies in such situations is “comparative negligence.” The concept of comparative negligence is a modern one—until the beginning of the 20th century, the principle of “contributory negligence” was controlling. Under that approach, a party who was negligent to any degree could not recover anything at all for their injuries.a
With comparative negligence, the court first determines the full extent of a person’s losses. Next, the court establishes the degree to which the injured person contributed to his or her losses (expressed as a percentage of liability). Finally, the court applies that percentage to reduce the damage award accordingly. For example, if the total losses are $100,000 and the injured person is deemed 25% responsible, the damage award is reduced by $25,000.
As the principle of comparative negligence has evolved, states have taken two approaches. Some states apply “pure comparative negligence,” where the injured person always receives something, unless he or she is found to be 100% at fault. For example, a person suffering $100,000 in damages who is found to be 75% responsible for his or her injuries will still get $25,000. The other approach, which New Jersey follows, is known as “modified comparative negligence. Under that scheme, an injured person only receives compensation if his or her degree of fault falls below a certain threshold, usually 50%.
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