How Does Pennsylvania View Contributory and Comparative Negligence?
The laws governing personal injury in Pennsylvania and other jurisdictions are fundamentally based on the concept of fault, or liability. In a personal injury claim based on negligence, a jury will look at the actions of omissions of a person—the defendant—and ask whether they “caused” an accident that led to an injury. It’s not uncommon for there to be more than one defendant, and for the jury to allocate liability or fault to more than one party. But what happens if the injured person engaged in some careless act that contributed to the injury or made it worse?
Under the law as it existed until about a century ago, an injured person who committed any act or omission that contributed to an accident or injury could not recover anything. This doctrine, known as “contributory negligence,” ruled the day for centuries, but ultimately came to be perceived as unduly harsh and unfair. Defense attorneys would look for any act, material or insignificant, to avoid responsibility. Grossly negligent defendants often escaped liability entirely because an injured party made a minor mistake.
The doctrine of contributory negligence has been replaced in most jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, with the concept of “comparative negligence.” As a general rule, comparative negligence looks at the total amount of losses suffered, allocates a percentage of liability to each party, and reduces the damage award by the percentage to which the injured party was responsible.
There are two different approaches to comparative negligence. Under the concept of “pure comparative negligence,” an injured party will always receive something, unless the jury finds him entirely responsible for his own injuries. For example, if a person is hurt in a motor vehicle accident and suffers $100,000 in losses, but the jury finds him 60% responsible, he will only collect $40,000.This does not apply in Pennsylvania.
Under the alternative approach, known as “modified comparative negligence,” an injured party’s responsibility must fall below a certain threshold, which is 51% in Pennsylvania, in order for that person to recover anything. Under this rule, if the damages are $100,000, but the injured party is 60% responsible, he will recover nothing. If, on the other hand, he is only 40% responsible, he will recover $60,000.
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