Joint and several liability is a legal term for a responsibility that is shared by two or more parties to a lawsuit. A wronged party may sue any or all of them, and collect the total damages awarded by a court from any or all of them.
- In law, joint and several liability makes all parties in a suit responsible for damages up to the entire amount awarded.
- That is, if one party is unable to pay, the others named must pay more than their share.
- More commonly, comparative fault laws limit an individual's payment to a proportion based on the extent of their fault.
In such cases, responsibility for the total amount awarded would be shared by all. Failure by any of the parties to pay would increase the obligation of the others.
Understanding Joint and Several Liability
Joint and several liability favors the plaintiff suing for damages because it empowers him or her to pursue full payment, if necessary, from the party with the deepest pockets if the others named cannot pay.
If all of the parties involved are insolvent and uninsured, the plaintiff collects nothing.
Joint and several liability differs in law from comparative fault, in which multiple parties are assigned responsibility for a portion of the damages in relation to the degree of fault that they bear for the harm. In such cases, a plaintiff may be left in the position of seeking damages from the party that is least able to pay.
Comparative fault is sometimes called "pure several liability." It is more common in the U.S. than joint and several liability.
Most states in the U.S. have limited the use of joint and several liability, or have developed a hybrid approach. For example, a state might allow joint and several liability to apply only to parties who are found responsible for more than 50% of the damage done.
The hybrid approach was adopted as a means of reforming a system that appeared to encourage some plaintiffs to add a single party with deep pockets, such as a large corporation, to a suit in order to get an outsized award.
Criticism of Joint and Several Liability
As noted, joint and several liability tends to benefit the plaintiff, as it increases the chances that all of the damages awarded can be collected.
Most states in the U.S. limit the use of joint and several responsibility or employ a hybrid approach.
On the other hand, it may be considered unfair to a party who bears only a minor responsibility for an adverse event to bear an outsized financial loss because of it.
Example of a Joint and Several Liability Suit
A joint and several liability case could be launched on behalf of workers who became ill after working at multiple job sites where they were exposed to harmful materials. For example, they might be construction workers who suffer physical ailments that can be attributed to contact with a toxic substance that was present in materials used in all of their workplaces.
The workers might argue that inadequate precautions were taken by several employers who were responsible for worker safety at various sites at which they worked.