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Contributory Negligence: Not So Archaic?

Do you live in one of the few states in the U.S. that follows the doctrine of contributory negligence?  Do you even know what contributory negligence is?

Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia to this day follow the doctrine of contributory negligence, considered by many to be an archaic law.  Contributory negligence can apply to any negligence case, but many individuals will experience it as applied to personal injury cases – particularly automobile accidents.  This doctrine states that when a plaintiff sues another party for causing the plaintiff’s injury, by accusing them of negligence, the plaintiff can recover absolutely nothing if the judge or jury find that the plaintiff was even 1% negligent in the accident.  That’s correct: when the judge or jury determines that you contributed at all to the accident – for example, say you didn’t look to your right to see if a car was coming when you were in the middle of the street – the driver of the car that hit you owes you nothing for your injuries.

Most states have adopted a slightly different doctrines that are much less harsh.  Some hold that when the plaintiff’s negligence contributes to the accident, his recovery will be reduced by the amount that he is negligent.  For example, if the plaintiff is found to be 60% negligent and the jury finds that he suffered $100,000 in damages, then the plaintiff’s recovery is reduced by 60% - meaning he can only get $40,000.  Other jurisdictions don’t permit the plaintiff to recovery when he is found to be more than 50% negligent.

However, it can be argued, particularly in this context and age of technology, that pedestrians ought to face this risk of contributory negligence.  How many people have you seen walking around and crossing streets with their faces buried in smartphones, tablets, and mp3 players?  Inherently, the concept of contributory negligence seems to place a duty or obligation on the pedestrians to pay attention while walking instead of putting the majority of their focus into handheld devices.  There are already strict laws in many locations preventing drivers from operating smartphones and other handheld devices while driving, whereas similar laws are not in place for pedestrians.  Contributory negligence necessarily implies these laws for the pedestrians as well.  Perhaps the concept of contributory negligence is becoming less archaic and more relevant in certain contexts.


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