To be successful in a motor vehicle accident lawsuit, the plaintiff (the one who was injured) must prove that the defendant (the one who caused the injury) was at fault and caused the damages.
Depending on the defendant’s defenses, they may be able to argue that there is no causal link between conduct or negligence that led to an injury.
What Is Contributory Negligence?
Contributory negligence at common law is when the conduct of the plaintiff falls below the standard of conduct to which they should have conformed for their own protection, and this standard of conduct was a legally and contributing cause in conjunction with the defendant’s conduct to bring about the plaintiff’s harm.
If there was any unreasonable conduct on the part of the plaintiff that contributed to the happening of the accident or injury in the first place, then the plaintiff’s recovery was barred because the plaintiff contributed to the happening of the accident.
In other words, the plaintiff had some sort of a duty to avoid the accident or not get injured (or as injured), and they breached this duty which proximately caused their own damages. Under contributory negligence, if a plaintiff was found to have contributed in some way to their own injuries, then the plaintiff would not be able to recover any damages.
If a plaintiff were found to be even 1% responsible for the accident, their claim was barred. If that sounds like a strange and draconian defense, it is – and over time – almost all states have abandoned old-fashioned contributory negligence as a defense.
The modern approach is Comparative Negligence, which is now the majority rule.
What Is Comparative Negligence?
Comparative negligence or comparative fault is a legal doctrine that assigns blame for an accident or injury between two or more parties. The doctrine apportions fault according to each party’s percentage of negligence, which is calculated by comparing each party’s role in causing the accident.
Comparative negligence is similar to contributory negligence. However, courts will consider a plaintiff’s negligence for a partial recovery (reduced by their own percentage of negligence) instead of a complete bar to recovering anything.
With comparative negligence, the plaintiff is going to recover something, which is a fairer approach to calculating damages since under comparative negligence a court will spread the fault among the parties involved in the car accident. In essence, the defendant’s negligence is reduced by the percentage of the plaintiff’s negligence.
There may be some instances where a court can apply Limited Comparative Negligence or the Greater Than 50% Rule. For instance, if the plaintiff’s negligence is greater than the defendant’s negligence, the plaintiff would be barred from recovery.
Why Is Comparative Negligence An Important Defense For A Defendant?
To win a personal injury lawsuit, a plaintiff needs to prove that the defendant was responsible for the harm. In some accidents, it is clear that a defendant caused the accident by their negligent behavior; however, it can be more complicated if the plaintiff was partially at fault.
In a pure comparative fault jurisdiction, the monetary amount of damages you receive will be reduced by any percentage assessed as related to your own contribution to the accident. In other words, If a plaintiff is found to be comparatively negligent, their award will be reduced by the percentage of whatever the comparative fault is.
For example, if you are 50 percent at fault for causing your injuries, then your damages would be reduced accordingly, meaning, you could receive only 50 percent of the settlement or jury award.
The burden of proof is on the defendant to show what the plaintiff, using a reasonable person standard, would have done in a particular accident scenario.
So, as a plaintiff involved in an automobile accident, when you look back at how the accident happened, if you think that you could have avoided some of the consequences of the defendant’s wrongdoing, then perhaps your claim may not be worth as much as you think it is in terms of monetary damages.
For example, if a driver runs a stop sign and collides with another car, the driver (now the defendant) would be considered negligent and at fault for the accident.
On the other hand, in some states, if the plaintiff in the other car that was hit by the defendant was not wearing a seatbelt, the defendant could argue that the plaintiff was also negligent for not wearing a seatbelt. Therefore, they should not be held 100% liable for plaintiff’s injuries if they would have been lessened by wearing a seatbelt.
What Is A Duty To Mitigate Damages?
A duty to mitigate damages requires people to take reasonable steps to minimize the losses they suffer after an accident. In auto accidents, this commonly includes things like seeking medical treatment by going to an ER, chiropractor, urgent care, or some other medical facility.
Some jurisdictions refer to the duty to mitigate damages as Avoidable Consequences. The idea of mitigating or lessening one’s injuries is all about the conduct of the plaintiff after the accident. Avoidable consequences are a limitation on damages much like how comparative fault is a limitation.
In reality, a plaintiff does not have a duty to seek treatment after an accident. Likewise, an injured plaintiff will not be forced to have surgery either.
Some courts will take into account the plaintiff’s decision to not have surgery due to the potential risks involved, the possible side effects, and the costs associated with the surgery. Additionally, some courts will also take into consideration the decision to not have surgery based on religious beliefs.
However, the point of a duty to mitigate is that if the defendant can prove that a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position would undergo surgery to lessen the extent of the injury, then the plaintiff should not be entitled to the same amount of monetary damages.
For example, suppose the defendant can prove that the plaintiff would avoid having permanent damages by having restorative surgery. If the plaintiff refuses to have the surgery, then the defendant could argue that the plaintiff should not be entitled to claim permanent damages as a result of the accident and thus, the award for compensatory damages should be reduced.
Since the duty to mitigate consequences is an affirmative defense, the defendant has the burden of proof to show that a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s shoes would elect to have such surgery. If a defendant is going to assert this defense, it must be pleaded in the answer to the plaintiff’s complaint.
Do I Need an Attorney For An Auto Accident?
When you need legal help with an auto accident, there is no better option than hiring a lawyer. A local car accident attorney can explain how the laws in your state apply to your case and discuss potential remedies available for damages resulting from the crash as well.
An auto accident attorney can also represent you on your behalf during court proceedings if needed, or even during settlement negotiations.
Additionally, an accident attorney can help you mitigate any avoidable consequences by guiding you through the maze of this complicated area of law.