Not all car accidents have a single cause. There may be multiple failures or negligent acts that lead to a specific crash. To give a simple hypothetical example, say two cars collide at an intersection. One of the cars ran a red light. The other car had a green light but was traveling in excess of the posted speed limit.
Which driver is legally responsible for the accident? Technically, both of them. And if one driver files a personal injury lawsuit against the other, a judge or jury would have to sort out each party’s relative fault. This is known as comparative negligence and it often plays a crucial role in deciding whether a plaintiff can recover damages from a defendant–and if so, how much.
Contributory vs. Comparative Negligence
Historically, most U.S. states followed a much stricter rule of contributory negligence in personal injury cases. Under this standard, if a plaintiff shared any fault for an accident, they could not recover anything from a defendant regardless of degree. So for instance, if a jury determined the defendant was 99 percent responsible for the accident and the plaintiff just 1 percent, the plaintiff would still walk away from nothing.
These days, only a handful of states still follow the contributory negligence rule. The overwhelming majority apply some form of comparative negligence. But here, too, there can be a significant variation from state-to-state. The majority of jurisdictions apply what is known as modified comparative negligence. Basically, this means that a plaintiff can still recover some damages provided their share of the liability does not exceed a certain threshold, usually 50 or 51 percent. In Vermont, for instance, the plaintiff must be less than 51 percent at-fault.
New York, however, applies what is considered pure comparative negligence. This eliminates any threshold for recovery. In other words, even if you were 99 percent at-fault for the accident, you could still theoretically recover 1 percent of your damages from an at-fault defendant.
To put this in practical terms, say you suffer $200,000 in damages arising from a car accident. This includes your medical bills, lost income, pain and suffering, and so forth. You sue the other driver and go to trial. The jury decides that both of you are equally at-fault (50/50). The judge would then order the defendant to pay you $100,000, or 50 percent of your total damages.
Plaintiff’s Negligence Does Not Necessarily Let Defendant Off the Hook
One key takeaway from New York’s pure comparative negligence standard is that a defendant cannot escape liability for a car accident simply by pointing the finger of blame at the victim. Even if there is some evidence to support comparative negligence, that does not bar the possibility that the defendant’s actions may also have contributed to the accident.
Take this recent decision from the Appellate Division, Second Department, Gonzalez v. Gonzales. In this case, a motorist struck a bicyclist on Long Island. Both vehicles were traveling down a two-way street. The bicyclist subsequently sued the car driver after sustaining serious injuries in the crash. Before the Supreme Court, the driver moved for summary judgment, arguing the defendant caused the accident by riding the wrong way on the street in violation of state traffic laws.
The Supreme Court, and later the Second Department, said summary judgment was not justified, however, because the defendants “failed to establish, prima facie, that their conduct was not a proximate cause of the accident.” Even assuming the plaintiff had violated the traffic laws, there is still a factual dispute as to whether the defendant failed to keep a proper lookout for other vehicles just prior to the collision. As such, the court could not establish comparative fault at the summary judgment stage.
Speak with a Glens Falls Car Accident Attorney Today
Another important thing to keep in mind here is that if you are ever involved in a car accident, never be quick to admit fault. Even telling the other driver “I’m sorry!” may be later construed as an admission of some degree of fault. Of course, you should never lie. But you are not required to volunteer any information that might be used against you later.
Indeed, if you are involved in a serious accident, it is important to seek out qualified legal advice regarding your potential options for seeking compensation. Our experienced Glens Falls car accident lawyers can review your case and advise you of your rights. Contact Larson & Gallivan Law today at 518-862-8799 to schedule a free initial consultation.