If you are in an accident, one of the first questions you may be asked is to what degree you were responsible for the incident. That’s called comparative negligence and it’s the standard in almost every state.
But it’s not the standard in Maryland, Virginia or the District of Columbia. In those jurisdictions (as well as in Alabama and North Carolina), the standard is called contributory negligence.
What’s the difference?
If you file a lawsuit for damages after an accident in one of the 46 comparative negligence states, you will be assigned a percentage of fault for an accident.
For example, if you are struck by a bus while in a crosswalk, you could be found to be 10 percent liable (you could have moved out of the way of the bus or chose not to enter the crosswalk upon hearing the oncoming bus) while the bus driver and company could be found to be 90 percent liable for the accident. Any reward you received could be reduced by 10 percent.
However, in contributory negligence states like Maryland and Virginia along with the District of Columbia, if you are found to be liable at all for the accident, then you cannot win a suit against the defendant.
Using the previous example, the pedestrian hit by the bus would lose the case against the bus company and driver because of the 10-percent liability.
Attempts to change the law
The Court of Appeals in Maryland recently took up a case that dealt with the issue. In Coleman v. Soccer Association of Columbia, the court found 10 attempts by the state legislature to abolish contributory negligence. All failed. The court decided it was better to let the legislature make a decision on the standard rather than the court.
A dissenting opinion, however, stated that the Assembly’s failure to make a legislative change should not be seen as an endorsement of a standard the judge said should be made “extinct”.
The standard also applies in Virginia. In both states, there is an exception made for accidents that include safety code violations called the common carrier exception. If a passenger injured in a bus or airplane wasn’t wearing a safety belt, then the injury is the carrier’s fault and the carrier can be sued.
In all cases, it’s important to have a qualified legal team on your side to make sure you have the best legal protection available.