Contributory Negligence

DEFINITION of 'Contributory Negligence'

A rule that can reduce the amount of compensation that a plaintiff may receive if the plaintiff’s actions are found to have increased the likelihood that the incident occurred. Contributory negligence is used as a defense by parties that are being sued for damages.

BREAKING DOWN 'Contributory Negligence'

Determining who is at fault in an accident is a critical aspect of insurance. Insurance companies will go to court in order to ensure that they are only held liable for damages caused by the party that they have insured, and only to the smallest extent possible. In working out the actions that led to an accident occurring, insurers and the courts work to determine how blame should be assigned. This will ultimately lead to determining how much the insurer has to pay. Insurers want to pay as small amount as possible, as this directly impacts their profitability.

In some cases, the party making a claim for damages may be found to be blameless. For example, if the insured’s property is found to have been up to code but is damaged by a flood, the insured 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 occurring in the first place, and the courts must determine how much of the damage was caused by negligent behavior. This is contributory negligence.

For example, one evening a driver makes a left-hand turn at a green traffic light, and is struck by a vehicle in oncoming traffic. The driver claims that the vehicle in oncoming traffic had problems with its headlights, and files a claim against the other driver’s insurance policy. Even though both drivers had a green light, and the driver in oncoming traffic may have had headlight problems, the driver who made the turn may be found to have contributed to the accident. This is because the driver who made the turn could have reduced the likelihood of an accident occurring by ensuring that there was sufficient time to turn in the face of oncoming traffic. The court will look at both the actions of the plaintiff and the defense to determine the percentage of damages each party is responsible for.

State law determines how contributory negligence impacts a victim’s ability to receive compensation after an accident. Some states allow compensation to be reduced if the victim is found to have been at some level of fault, while others deny the victim any compensation if the victim is found to have had any hand in an accident occurring. Most U.S. states, however, have moved away from allowing contributory negligence as a defense in favor of comparative negligence.