Contributory Negligence: Definition, Role in Insurance, and Laws

Contributory Negligence

Investopedia / Sydney Burns

What Is Contributory Negligence?

Contributory negligence is the plaintiff's failure to exercise reasonable care for their safety. A plaintiff is the party who brings a case against another party (the defendant). Contributory negligence can bar recovery or reduce the amount of compensation a plaintiff receives if their actions increased the likelihood that an incident occurred. Often, defendants use contributory negligence as a defense.

Key Takeaways

  • Contributory negligence refers to a plaintiff's neglect of their own safety. 
  • It could reduce the plaintiff's compensation if their negligence increased the chance of an incident occurring.
  • Courts decide how much damage was caused by the policyholder's actions, and payment of the policy could be denied.

Understanding Contributory Negligence

Determining fault in an accident is a critical aspect of insurance. An insurance policyholder may file an insurance claim seeking compensation for a loss or event that's covered under the insurance policy. Insurance companies litigate to ensure that they are only liable for damages caused by their insured clients. As well, defense lawyers of the insurance companies typically attempt to limit responsibility to the smallest extent possible.

Reviewing actions that led to an accident, insurers and the courts determine how to assign fault. The determination of fault will ultimately lead to deciding how much the insurer must pay as a result of the insurance claim. Insurers seek to pay as little as possible for a claim so as not to affect the company's profitability.

In some cases, the party initiating a claim for damages may be found blameless. For example, if the insured’s property is up to code but damaged by a catastrophic event, the policyholder is likely to receive full compensation up to the coverage limit. In other cases, the individual filing a claim may be found to have contributed to the damages. As an example, a claim for property lost to fire after the insured was informed of faulty wiring but chose not to repair it may be considered negligent. Courts must decide how much damage was caused by the policyholder's behavior—which is the essence of contributory negligence—and payment could be reduced or denied.

State Laws

Some states allow contributory negligence if it's a substantial factor in producing the plaintiff's injury. State law determines how contributory negligence impacts a victim’s ability to receive compensation after an accident or loss. Some states allow the reduction of benefit if the victim is partially responsible, while others deny payment if the victim has any fault in an accident.

Contributory Negligence vs. Comparative Negligence

Comparative negligence is used to assign fault or blame in a claim by determining how much fault lies between the defendant and plaintiff. With comparative negligence, the fault is assigned, and damages awarded proportionately based on the degrees of determined negligence. The amount awarded in an insurance claim might be calculated as follows: Plaintiff's recovery = (Defendant's % of fault * Plaintiff's proven damages).

While contributory negligence reduces the amount of compensation a plaintiff receives, comparative negligence looks to assign financial responsibility in proportion to each party's level of involvement in causing the incident. Most U.S. states have adopted comparative negligence over contributory negligence either by statute or judicial decision. 

Example of Contributory Negligence

As an example, let's say a construction worker subject to long-term exposure to asbestos develops lung cancer. Subsequently, they die, and their family files a lawsuit against their employer for not employing proper safety measures according to industry standards. The defendant argues contributory negligence citing that the deceased worker smoked 10 packs of unfiltered cigarettes daily for over 20 years, which could have caused or contributed to their cancer. After determining fault and awarding damages, the court reduced the amount payable by the defendant based on the plaintiff's negligence in protecting themself from lung cancer.