Everything You Need to Know About Comparative Negligence in 2024

Image3The saying goes: An accident can happen in the blink of an eye. You might be trying to get through a school run on a rainy day, only to have a truck jackknife in front of you. You may want to get your groceries done before payday, only to slip and fall in a nearly empty supermarket.

However, what if you were not paying attention when the truck appeared in front of you? What if you purposely walked on a visibly wet surface, only to fall and get injured in the process?

This would mean you and the other party would share some blame for the accident. If you pursue a legal case, this is where comparative negligence comes in.

Comparative negligence applies to all at-fault parties, whether there are two or more. It is a principle of tort law that assigns fault to each involved party when an accident happens.

Comparative negligence is not the same as contributory negligence. Contributory negligence prevents a plaintiff from claiming compensation if they are also partly at fault for an accident. Using comparative negligence, a plaintiff could still claim some compensation, depending on various factors.

What Does Comparative Negligence Mean?

The best way to explain the concept of comparative negligence is to look at a hypothetical accident.

For instance, if you ignore a yield sign and a speeding driver running a red light crashes into you, comparative negligence would apply to both of you.

Most states adhere to a pure comparative negligence system, so the court might assign 80% fault to the speeding driver and 20% fault to you.

These percentages will differ based on each situation and directly impact how much compensation you can claim.

So, if you suffered damages of $200,000, you can still recover compensation minus your fault percentage. Instead of $200,000, you will get $160,000.

Different Types of Comparative Negligence

Forty-five states follow the comparative negligence rule, while 12 states use pure comparative negligence regulations. Four states, Alabama, North Carolina, Maryland, and Virginia (and the District of Columbia), follow contributory negligence.

Moreover, 33 states use modified comparative negligence in personal injury cases. South Dakota is the only state that follows the slight versus gross negligence rule.


Slight versus gross negligence refers to slight negligence by the plaintiff and gross negligence by the defendant. A plaintiff who is slightly at fault for an accident can pursue damages. However, if their part in an accident does not fit the description of “slight,” they may be barred from recovering any damages.

Modified comparative negligence means a plaintiff cannot recover damages if they are 50% or more at fault for an accident. These percentages depend on a plaintiff’s state rule. If a plaintiff is less than 50% at fault, they can recover damages, but the payout will be reduced in tandem with their fault percentage.

Comparative Negligence Beyond Car Crashes

As alluded to above, comparative negligence is not limited to car accidents. It applies to most personal injury cases. These include slip and fall accidents, where comparative negligence would determine the percentage of fault for the store and you.

Comparative negligence can even come into play in dog bite cases. If a person trespassed on a property or provoked a free-roaming dog, the injured party and dog owner must accept a share of the blame.

It is also possible for comparative negligence to play a role in medical malpractice. But that can only happen if a patient’s actions contribute to a medical error, which rarely happens.

Why Is Comparative Negligence Important?

Comparative negligence aims to ensure fairness in personal injury cases. It also protects partially at-fault plaintiffs. Without this principle, someone slightly responsible for an accident would not be able to recover damages.

Furthermore, comparative negligence can help motivate all involved parties to behave more cautiously. If they were to blame for an accident, they may drive slower or adhere better to traffic laws.

Comparative Negligence in Personal Injury Cases

If a plaintiff wants to recover damages, they must prove that the defendant should (also) be held liable. This means they have to prove four critical elements: duty of care, breach of duty, causation, and damages.

Duty of care refers to the reasonable legal obligation of a person or organization to prevent acts that could cause harm to others. This element is compared to what any average person or organization would do in the same situation.

In the case of medical malpractice, a physician’s conduct is compared to that of another doctor in a similar field.

Breach of duty means that the defendant did nothing to prevent certain acts or situations that could harm others. Moreover, the plaintiff must prove that the breach of duty led directly to the harm caused. They must also prove that the defendant could have foreseen the harm.

Lastly, the plaintiff must show the damages suffered because of the harm endured.

If the plaintiff can prove these four elements, it becomes clear that the defendant should be liable for compensation. The defendant must pay if they cannot present a reasonable defense.


In this instance, comparative negligence may be a suitable defense. It can reduce the amount payable or stop any payment if the plaintiff is more than 50% or 51% at fault for the incident or accident. However, this will only count in a modified comparative fault state.

Comparative Negligence and Insurance

That said, comparative negligence also impacts how insurance companies resolve claims.

Insurance companies typically conduct investigations into personal injury claims and will reduce a plaintiff’s payout based on their percentage of fault.

The insurance company might deny the claim if you are found mostly at fault for the accident (in a modified comparative negligence state).

Comparative Negligence Can Make or Break a Personal Injury Case

Comparative negligence is one of the more complex legal concepts. This is why it is crucial to know how it will affect you in case of an accident. For this reason, consulting with or hiring a personal injury lawyer to guide you through all the aspects of a legal case is always a good idea. It is the best way to ensure you get the compensation you are entitled to.