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How Contributory Negligence Hurts Personal Injury Claims

Recently we wrote about a push by state lawmakers to end the contributory negligence standard in North Carolina. Such a change in the law would immensely benefit those who have been injured through no fault of their own.

For now, unfortunately, we are stuck with a legal standard that disproportionately punishes plaintiffs for small mistakes.

As veteran personal injury attorneys, the Whitley Law Firm recognizes the burdens placed on victims by the North Carolina contributory negligence rule. We remain steadfast in our belief that contributory negligence is bad for the legal system and bad for those who bring claims, and we are committed to exploring all options for our clients to recover the compensation they deserve for serious injuries.

What Is Contributory Negligence?

Tort laws govern the circumstances under which a personal injury claim can be brought. All states have rules specifying the threshold for fault – i.e., when plaintiffs are barred from recovering compensation due to their role in causing the accident or injury.

Most states have adopted a standard of comparative negligence. Under the rule of comparative negligence, the damages obtained by plaintiffs are reduced according to their share of fault. (Ex: A $100,000 award where the plaintiff is 10 percent at fault is reduced by 10 percent to $90,000.)

Contributory negligence, on the other hand, is a legal standard that allows plaintiffs no margin for error. If plaintiffs contribute to the accident or injury in any way – however minor – they are barred from recovery.

North Carolina is one of only a few states in the U.S. to use a contributory negligence standard in personal injury claims.

Why Is Contributory Negligence Bad?

Insurance companies and defense attorneys love the contributory negligence rule. Disputing liability for an accident is a simple matter of identifying some mistake on the plaintiff’s part. In effect, plaintiffs are expected to be perfect while defendants are afforded enormous latitude.

Even in the most egregious circumstances, the principle of contributory negligence lets wrongdoers off the hook.

Say, for example, that you are seriously injured in an accident with a distracted driver. Though we all know that distracted driving is extremely dangerous, many drivers take the chance and frequently cause devastating crashes.

Distracted driving is one of the most visible forms of negligence today. Those who text and drive and engage in other distractions behind the wheel disregard good sense and put their safety and the safety of others at risk.

And yet, the contributory negligence rule provides distracted drivers a means of avoiding civil liability for the accidents they cause.

For example: Say you are at a stop sign and turn left. As you move through the intersection, the distracted driver runs the stop sign traveling straight and T-bones you. You see the driver looking down at his phone, and other witnesses at the scene testify to the same.

All of these factors would support your claim against the distracted driver. However, the police interview a witness who says you did not come to a complete stop at the sign. The defense can use this information to dispute liability for the accident.

Not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign is obviously a mistake, but it pales in comparison to the recklessness of texting and driving. Unfortunately, the contributory negligence doctrine may bar you from recovering damages for this minor error.

How Does Contributory Negligence Affect My Claim?

As you can see, bringing a personal injury claim in North Carolina comes with many challenges. Insurance adjusters and lawyers for the defense will closely scrutinize your actions to determine if you contributed in any way to the accident.

The best thing you can do after an accident that was not your fault is to contact a personal injury attorney. A knowledgeable lawyer can assess the facts in your case, advise you of your rights, and handle communications with the insurance company on your behalf.

Insurance adjusters are very good at twisting people’s words and persuading them to act against their interests. Even if you did nothing wrong, they may ask leading questions to get you to admit some level of fault. If the strategy works and the insurance company has a record of your admission of fault, you will have little to no chance of recovering compensation for your injuries.

What Can I Do to Overcome Contributory Negligence?

There are limited circumstances in which the contributory negligence standard may be overcome. In cases involving gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct, for example, the plaintiff may be partially at fault but still able to recover damages because of the disparity between the plaintiff’s ordinary negligence and the defendant’s extreme negligence.

North Carolina also allows arguments under the “last clear chance” doctrine. This rule holds defendants liable if they had a reasonable opportunity to discover a danger presented by the plaintiff’s negligence (the last clear chance) but failed to avoid an accident through their own negligence.

Both of these defenses to contributory fault are dependent on the evidence presented by the plaintiff. An experienced attorney can assess the potential ameliorating factors in your claim and fight for your right to compensation.

Get Started on Your Personal Injury Claim Today

It is important not to let concerns about contributory negligence prevent you from making a claim. You may be entitled to significant compensation for the losses you suffer due to someone else’s carelessness, but it is impossible to know how much you are due without consulting a knowledgeable lawyer.

The personal injury attorneys at the Whitley Law Firm take immense pride in representing those who have been injured by the negligence of others. We know that you need more than legal expertise – you need a team that is committed to your peace of mind. In addition to a history of favorable case results, the Whitley Law Firm is distinguished by its compassion for injured individuals in trying circumstances.

Please call the Whitley Law Firm at (919) 785-5000 to speak to a personal injury attorney. It won’t cost anything to see if we can help.