When you have suffered an injury through no fault of your own, you look to the wrongdoer to compensate you for all your losses. But what if you were partially at fault? What if you acted carelessly or negligently and your actions contributed to causing the accident? Can you still recover compensation? Are there any limitations?
Under the laws of negligence, the prevailing concept for centuries was the doctrine of contributory negligence. This principle held that if the injured party was at fault in any way or to any degree, he or she could not recover damages for any losses sustained. Because of this principle, defense attorneys would routinely look for any evidence of carelessness on the part of a plaintiff. Eventually, the law began to change, as lawmakers, judges and lawyers saw a basic unfairness in preventing a minimally responsible plaintiff from recovering compensation from a clearly negligent defendant. As a result, the doctrine of contributory negligence was replaced by the concept of comparative negligence.
Two forms of comparative negligence have developed across the country. Some states have adopted what is known as “pure comparative negligence,” where an injured party is always entitled to some recovery, provided all the elements of the case are established. With pure comparative negligence, the jury makes a determination of the full extent of a plaintiff’s losses and then assesses a percentage of liability to the plaintiff. For example, if the damages are established at $250,000 and the plaintiff is determined to be 10% responsible, the damage award will be reduced by 10%, or $25,000.
In other states, including New Jersey, a form of “modified comparative negligence” applies. In these jurisdictions, a plaintiff may only recover compensation if his or her percentage of liability falls below a certain level, typically 50%. Accordingly, if the plaintiff was 51% responsible or higher, there is no recovery.
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