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Contributory Negligence

What is Contributory Negligence? 

The contributory negligence doctrine no longer applies in California. After determining that contributory negligence was too harsh on accident victims, the California Supreme Court adopted the concept of comparative negligence in 1975. Victims who contributed to their injuries would not be able to recover anything under the doctrine of contributory negligence. Despite the fact that this deterred personal injury lawsuits, it left victims without compensation.


Multiple People at Fault 

Multiple People at Fault

In many cases, where someone gets injured due to someone else's negligence, the victim is partly to blame for the accident or for his or her own injuries. These types of accidents are known as torts. Individuals who commit tortfeasor acts are known as tortfeasors.

When there are multiple tortfeasors and one is the injured party, the courts recognize two methods of resolving cases: contributory negligence, and comparative negligence.

Contributory Negligence Work

Contributory Negligence Work

A victim may be found negligent if they contributed to the accident in some way. Victims who contributed to the accident or whose conduct made their injuries worse will not be compensated.


Rules like this are very strict. If they contributed in some small way to the accident, victims can suffer serious or even life-threatening injuries and still not recover anything. It can still mean that the victim receives nothing for their losses even if the judge or jury finds only 1 percent of the blame on them. If their losses are substantial, it's especially unfair.


Although contributory negligence was rigidly governed, it was common into the 1960s. The concept of contributory negligence is preferred by many states and insurance companies since it deters personal injury claims. Victims who clearly contributed to the accident in some minor way would not be eligible for compensation. Therefore, it was pointless to hire a personal injury lawyer and file a lawsuit.


By 2021, however, only four states and the District of Columbia will use contributory negligence to resolve personal injury cases. The four states are Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Comparative Fault State

California Was a Comparative Fault State

California was one of many other states in the U.S. that switched from contributory negligence rules to a comparative fault in the 1970s. Most other states switched when their state’s legislature passed a statute that changed the law. In California,

though, the change came through the common law from a state supreme court decision, Li v. Yellow Cab Company. The case involved a car accident on a major road in Los Angeles. The victim was turning left at a stop light across 3 lanes of oncoming traffic. She was hit by a driver who was going 30 miles per hour over the speed limit. When he entered the intersection, his traffic signal was yellow.


Even though the other driver was speeding and had a duty of care to stop for the light, the jury found that the victim was negligent for making the left turn when it was unsafe to do so. Under California law, this would bar the plaintiff’s recovery of any compensation for her injuries.

The California Supreme Court, however, determined that contributory negligence rules were outdated and unfair. It changed them for a system of pure comparative negligence.

Pure Comparative Negligence

Pure Comparative Negligence

Pure comparative fault is a type of comparative negligence law. Under the legal doctrine of pure comparative fault, the victim’s compensation is reduced by the percentage of the victim’s responsibility for his or her injuries. The defendant has to show that there is substantial evidence that the victim was partially responsible. If this is shown, then the jury would compare the negligence of the victim and the defendant and assign percentages of fault to each party.


California is one of about a dozen states that use pure comparative fault rules. Other states that use this form of fault allocation include Alaska, Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, New York, and Washington.

In addition to pure comparative fault, there is also modified comparative fault. Modified comparative negligence works by also reducing the amount of damages that the victim can recover by his or her percentage of responsibility for the accident. However, modified fault rules can bar recovery if the victim was half, or more than half, responsible.


About 10 states bar the victim from recovering any compensation if they were 50 percent or more responsible. This means that, if the victim and the other party were equally responsible, the victim recovers nothing. These comparative negligence states include Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Tennessee, and Utah.

The most popular form of comparative fault bars recovery to victims who were found to be 51 percent or more responsible. About 23 states follow these rules. In these states, the victim’s own negligence has to be the primary cause of the accident to be denied compensation. These states include Hawaii, Illinois, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, and Wyoming.

However, some states use different rules of negligence for particular types of cases, like medical malpractice, or different types of compensation, like non-economic damages. Victims who have been hurt should strongly consider talking to a personal injury attorney from a local law firm for a case evaluation, to discuss their options, and to get legal advice.

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