Understanding New York’s Contributory Fault Rules
Determining causation is a critical component of any personal injury case. Sometimes one person is solely responsible for causing an accident and the resulting consequences. However, there are also times when more than one person is deemed to have caused or contributed to an accident.
All states – including New York – have some type of “contributory negligence” laws on the books to handle these types of situations. These laws dictate how fault (and liability) for an accident should be divided when multiple parties play a role.
Contributory fault laws fall into one of three categories:
- Pure contributory negligence
- Pure comparative negligence, and
- Modified comparative negligence.
New York has adopted what’s known as a “pure comparative fault” system.
Before we discuss how New York handles comparative negligence, it’s important to have a baseline understanding of contributory fault, in general.
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Contributory Fault vs. Comparative Fault vs. Modified Comparative Fault
At the very core, contributory fault laws dictate (a) if someone involved in an accident can recover compensation for their injuries and (b) how much they can ultimately get from other parties.
And, it really boils down to what type of laws are on the books in the state where an accident occurs.
Contributory negligence means that accident victims are barred from seeking monetary damages if they had anything to do with the accident that caused their injury(ies). Sharing just 1% of the blame will be a total bar to financial recovery.
Most states have moved away from pure contributory faults rules. Only Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia (as well as Washington, D.C.) have pure contributory negligence rules that apply to personal injury cases.
Pure Comparative Fault
Many states have embraced something called “pure comparative negligence” rules. Very simply, accident victims are not prevented from seeking damages for their injuries just because they share some of the responsibility for getting hurt.
However, their damages are adjusted to reflect their contribution.
Example: Mary is rear-ended at a traffic light in Brooklyn. Mary had been stopped at a red light and took a moment to send a text message on her phone. However, since she was focused on her phone and not the traffic signal, she didn’t notice that the light had turned green. The driver approaching from the rear saw a green light and did not slow down – despite the fact that Mary’s car was very clearly not moving.
Both parties share some of the blame for this car accident. Mary’s ability to recover compensation will be directly affected by the percentage of blame she is assigned. If she’s allocated 25% fault, her damages will be reduced by 25%. So, if her damages totaled $100,000, she’d be able to recover a maximum of $75,000.
Sharing blame under a pure comparative fault system also affects your liability to other accident victims. In the example above, Mary would be 25% liable for damages suffered by the driver who rear-ended her, and/or anyone else injured in the collision.
States with modified comparative negligence systems in place include New York, as well as Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Washington.
Modified Comparative Fault
Think of modified comparative fault rules as a hybrid of contributory negligence and pure comparative negligence systems. Sharing some of the blame for an accident is not an automatic bar to financial recovery – to a point. However, that changes once you are assigned 50% or 51% of the blame (depending on the state).
Currently, 12 states follow a modified comparative negligence system with a 50% bar to recovery. These include Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and West Virginia
Another 21 have a 51% bar in place. These include Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Once your proportionate responsibility equals or exceeds the bar as set by state law, you’ll be prohibited from recovering compensation from other parties.
New York’s Comparative Fault Law: NY CPLR Section 1411
New York’s contributory fault rules can be found in NY CPLR Section 1411.
The statute says:
In any action to recover damages for personal injury, injury to property, or wrongful death, the culpable conduct attributable to the claimant or to the decedent, including contributory negligence or assumption of risk, shall not bar recovery, but the amount of damages otherwise recoverable shall be diminished in the proportion which the culpable conduct attributable to the claimant or decedent bears to the culpable conduct which caused the damages.
Note, the statute says “conduct attributable to the claimant or decedent.” This means that New York’s pure comparative negligence rule applies to all personal injury cases – including wrongful death claims, too.
So, pursuant to NY CLPR Section 1411:
- Injury victims (or surviving family members) are not prohibited from recovering compensation if apportioned fault for an accident
- Damages will be reduced in direct proportion to the victim’s degree of blame
- Injury victims (or surviving family members) will be financially responsible for other victims’ damages, to the extent to which they share fault.
More simply put, you won’t be prevented from pursuing compensation after an accident, but how much money you can recover will be influenced by any role you played in getting hurt.
Contributory Fault Systems Emphasize the Importance of Hiring a Lawyer After an Accident
No matter what type of contributory fault rules are established in the state where an accident happens, it is really important to hire an experienced personal injury lawyer after an accident. Sharing blame might be a total bar to recovery or, at the very least, have a significant impact on the amount of money you’re ultimately able to walk away with when your claim or lawsuit is resolved.
Aat-fault parties and insurance companies will work hard to shift blame away from them and into anyone else’s lap – even yours. If you don’t stand up and fight these tactics, you could watch your much-needed financial award dwindle away or even disappear. The best course of action involves hiring an attorney with extensive experience handling personal injury cases like yours.
Your lawyer can stand up for your rights and gather evidence to disprove claims that you share blame and/or limit the degree of blame you are ultimately assigned. In the end, this will help you maximize your settlement or award.