Washington Has "Comparative Negligence." What Does That Mean?

One of the most important factors of a personal injury claim is establishing liability. Regardless of the extent of your damages – medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering – you can’t pursue a claim unless you can prove that another person or entity caused those injuries.

Establishing liability for an accident can be much easier in some cases than in others. For example, an accident victim who was seriously injured after being rear-ended by a driver who was distracted by his or her cell phone should have little to no trouble proving that the distracted driver is to blame for their injuries.

Washington state has a particular set of rules for liability. These are called 'comparative negligence laws" or sometimes 'comparative fault laws.' 

Why the word "comparative" is important

Comparative negligence limits the amount of damages that an accident victim may potentially recover based on their own contribution to the accident.

One hypothetical example involving comparative negligence would involve a driver who is rear-ended by another driver while not wearing a seatbelt. Sure, a rear-end accident is almost always the fault of the rear-ending driver, but the fact that the victim was not wearing a seatbelt would likely have contributed to the victim’s injuries to some extent.

The difficult part about comparative negligence is determining the level of negligence for each party. The general concept makes sense, but actually determining a percentage number for which each party is responsible when it comes to a motor vehicle collision or some other type of accident can be quite difficult.

There are four different variations of comparative negligence in the United States:

  • Pure Contributory Negligence: This is the system in place for victims in Washington, as well as Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, and South Dakota. It allows a judge or jury to establish which percentage of responsibility, if any, can be assigned to the victim. The total recoverable damages are then determined by that percentage number.

    EXAMPLE: If a victim is found to be 25% at-fault for their own injuries, then the victim is only entitled to recover 75 percent of the total damages. 
     
  • Pure Comparative Negligence: This system is pretty harsh on accident victims in Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. If a person is found to have contributed to their own injuries in any way, they are prohibited from collecting any damages for their injuries and other losses.

    EXAMPLE: Even if a car accident victim is found to be 1% liable for their own injuries then they may not pursue a claim against the at-fault driver.
     
  • Modified Comparative Negligence (50% bar rule): This system allows accident victims to receive compensation in an injury claim for damages as long as they are found to be less than 50% responsible for their injuries.

    EXAMPLE: If an accident victim is found to be equally responsible for their injuries as the defendant, then they cannot receive compensation. But if the plaintiff is found to be at or below 49% liable, then he or she would be permitted to receive compensation.
     
  • Modified Comparative Negligence (51% bar rule): This system is identical to the system above, except that the threshold allows for an accident victim to receive compensation as long as they are found to bear less than or equal to 50 percent responsibility.

    EXAMPLE: Unlike with the 50% bar rule system, this system would allow an accident victim to pursue a claim if they are no more than equally (50% or less) responsible for their own injuries as the defendant. If the victim is found to bear at least 51 percent responsibility for the damages, then he or she will not be entitled to any damages.

Have More Questions About Your Case?

Comparative negligence laws can have a significant impact on the overall value or even validity of a personal injury claim, and as you can tell these laws vary state-to-state. If you would like to learn more about your legal rights after an accident, feel free to call our office to schedule a free legal consultation.

There is no obligation to meet with an attorney at Davis Law Group, and it could help you gain a better understanding of the best course of action for you and your family. 

Chris Davis
Top-rated, award-winning, attorney practicing wrongful death & serious injury law in Seattle.
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