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Contributory Negligence

two car accidentWashington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, along just two other states, subscribe to a pure contributory negligence rule. This means, in essence, that if your own negligence contributed at all – even 1% – to an auto accident, you may not be able to recover any damages from the other party.

Consider the following examples:

• You’re driving too fast on wet roads and another vehicle spins out of control, crashes into the guard rail, and stops right in front of your car. You could have stopped if the roads had been dry, but with the roads wet, you crash into him. Your negligence in driving too quickly could completely bar your claim for damages.

• You’re driving down an unlit road in the early evening and haven’t turned your headlights on. Another driver, talking on his cell phone, pulls out of a side street right in front of your car. If you crash into him, your negligence in failing to turn on your headlights could mean you recover nothing from the other driver.

The rule of contributory negligence, while not always popular, at least avoids most questions about how to apportion fault for an accident when both are partially to blame. In other jurisdictions where recovery is based on and/or limited by a plaintiff’s share of the blame, much time is spent debating how much blame each driver should take, and then assigning a percentage to each. Contributory negligence doesn’t care how much blame you should share – pure contributory negligence only cares whether you share any blame at all. If the accident might not have happened if you had just done everything you should have done, you’ll have to pay for your own damages, no matter how at fault the other driver was.

There are, however, two exceptions to the contributory fault rule, which could allow you to recover from the other driver even if you were partially to blame:

1. The defendant willfully and wantonly acted, knowing that his deliberate actions would probably result in an injury, showing a disregard for the safety of others. In the first example above, if the other driver was driving drunk or under the influence, that fact could convince a court to allow you to recover at least a portion of your damages.

2. If the defendant had the last clear chance to avoid the accident and didn’t take it. In the second example above, if the other driver started to pull out, saw you when there was still space for you to swerve around him, and continued into your lane anyway, you could use that to argue that he could have avoided the accident. If the judge agrees, you may be able to recover your damages.

If you have been injured in an accident in a contributory negligence jurisdiction and you might be partially to blame, it is best to consult with an attorney experienced in handling contributory negligence cases. For representation in Maryland, Virginia, or Washington D.C., call Wingfield, Ginsburg & Lipp, P.C. at 800-584-4165 or fill out our contact form online. We’ve spent the last 40 years representing injured clients to ensure they get the best settlement possible, and we’d love to help you, too.

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