Sometimes an accident is clearly and solely one person's fault. For example, if you are sitting at a red light and someone runs into the rear of your car because they were texting, that person is clearly liable for the car accident, and will be on the legal hook for your resulting injuries, vehicle damage, and other losses.
But fault isn't always so obvious, and state laws like "pure comparative fault" and "modified comparative fault" can make it hard to figure out what happens when the plaintiff (the person filing a personal injury lawsuit) also bears some amount of blame for what happened.
Shared Fault Rules
It's not difficult to imagine scenarios in which both parties to an accident may be partially at fault, such as when Driver A fails to activate his left turn signal and is hit broadside by speeding Driver B as Driver A makes his turn in front of Driver B's oncoming vehicle. In this case, both drivers are partially at fault for the accident because one failed to signal as required by law and the other was exceeding the lawful speed limit.
When both parties are partially at fault, each one may be able to sue the other for their respective injuries, depending on the law of the jurisdiction where the lawsuit is filed. A few states still follow the harsh (for the plaintiff anyway) "contributory negligence" rule, which denies any financial recovery to a party who can be shown to have been at fault (to any extent) for causing the accident.
In all other states, the rule of "comparative negligence" applies to reduce the claimant's recovery by the percentage of fault attributed to him or her.
For example, in the case of Drivers A and B described above, if the jury finds that Driver A is 25% at fault and Driver B is 75% at fault, Driver A's damages will be reduced by 25% and Driver B's damages will be reduced by 75%.
But there are two types of comparative negligence -- sometimes referred to as "comparative fault" -- that have been adopted by various states since the contributory negligence doctrine has fallen out of favor. One system is known as "pure comparative fault" and the other is called "modified comparative fault."
"Pure" Comparative Negligence
In a pure comparative fault system, a person's percentage of fault reduces his or her recovery by that percentage, regardless of whether it is 1%, 99%, or somewhere in between. So, a person who is 99% at fault and who sustains $100,000 in damages will still be entitled to a judgment of $1,000 in a pure comparative fault jurisdiction.
"Modified" Comparative Negligence
In contrast, modified comparative fault allows a partially at-fault party to recover personal injury damages, but only if that party's share of fault is determined to be equal to or less than 50% (the threshold varies slightly in a few states).
For example, if the jury determines that you are 49% at fault, and your damages are $100,000, your judgment will be for $51,000. However, if the jury finds you to be 51% at fault, your judgment will be zero because you bear more blame than any other party.
While the outcomes that result from application of the rule of modified comparative fault may at times appear rather harsh, especially when an injured party is only slightly more at fault than others who contributed to the accident, this rule is grounded in a sound public policy that refuses to reward wrongdoers for negligence, when their own careless behavior was the predominant cause of their injuries.
Before proceeding with a lawsuit in a case where you are partially at fault, you should have a frank discussion with your personal injury attorney about how the particular law of your jurisdiction -- and your percentage of fault -- may affect your ability to recover an award of damages.
Learn more about personal injury lawsuits.