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Defenses to Civil Liability

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What Is Civil Liability?

Legal liability means to be responsible for an action or debt. Civil liability is to be responsible for debts or wrongdoing against another private party. This is in contrast with criminal liability, which deals with wrongdoing against society as a whole.
In civil liability suits, there are a number of defenses one can use to shift or deny responsibility. However, unlike criminal liability, the legal standard for guilt is lower. As a result, the defenses employed in a civil suit must be stronger than those of a criminal suit to avoid a verdict of guilt. 

What Are Defenses to Civil Liability?

There are several defenses an individual or organization can raise if a civil liability lawsuit is brought against him. The following defenses are absolute negative defenses; they defeat the claim by undermining and denying an important part of the case.  Some common negative defenses include:

  • Contributory Negligence – where the defendant will claim that the injured party contributed to his own harm, and thus the defendant should not be held liable. If the injured party was contributorily negligent then he will not be able to recover.
  • Comparative Negligence – if a court determines that more than one party is liable for the harm caused, it may split the liability among the various liable parties. So one party may be responsible for 60% of the damages while another party will be liable for the remaining 40%. An example of comparative negligence is a car accident where one driver is driving too fast, and another is driving without headlights. 
  • Assumption of Risk – if a court determines that the injured party engaged in a dangerous activity, the court may find that he or she assumed the risks associated with the dangerous activity and is responsible for their injury. This defense is used infrequently now because of the development of the comparative negligence doctrine.
  • Limitation on Liability Clauses - many contracts between parties contain limitation on liability clauses which protect one of the parties from liability in the event of injury or harm to the other party.
  • Act of God – defendants cannot be responsible for events outside human control, such as natural disasters. This was used in certain cases in Louisiana and other southern states after Hurricane Katrina caused massive economic damage.
  • Superseding Cause – defendant is not responsible because defendant did not cause the injury; someone or something else did.

Other defenses are affirmative defenses; it is admitted that events are true, but there is an alternative explanation as to what happened such that the defendant is not responsible. These defenses can include:

  • Comparative Negligence – if a court determines that more than one party is liable for the harm caused, it may split the liability among the various liable parties. So one party may be responsible for 60% of the damages while another party will be liable for the remaining 40%. An example of comparative negligence is a car accident where one driver is driving too fast, and another is driving without headlights.
  • Plaintiff’s Harm Is Limited – If the party bringing the suit cannot show that he or she was injured, than there is no case. Similarly, if the plaintiff fails to relieve the harm when such an opportunity presents itself, then the defendant cannot be held responsible for that. For example, if Joe ends up in an accident and claims severe head trauma but doesn’t go to the hospital immediately after the accident, the court may lower the amount rewarded or even refuse to recognize the claim.
  • Intervening Cause – plaintiff’s injuries were made worse by events which happened after the first accident. For example, Michelle twists her ankle because of a slip and fall at a store, but then breaks her leg a few days later when she falls down in her home. She cannot hold the store responsible for her broken leg, although she can hold them responsible for causing the initial injury. 

Do I Need a Lawyer to Claim One of these Defenses?

Civil lawsuits are very complicated and can be very costly. If a civil liability lawsuit has been brought against you, a personal injury attorney can advise you of your legal rights and defenses. 

Photo of page author Peter Clarke

, LegalMatch Content Manager

Last Modified: 09-05-2017 11:40 PM PDT

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