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Contributory Negligence

Basics of Contributory Negligence

Determining who is legally responsible (“at fault”) for a motor vehicle accident can be a difficult process. Add in North Carolina’s contributory negligence law, and determining liability can sometimes become a nearly impossible feat.

In North Carolina, the doctrine of contributory negligence essentially bars an injured party from receiving recovery if the damages suffered are partially their own fault. North Carolina is one of only four states to still follow this old common law principle. Under this rule, whenever a person is found to share any responsibility for his or her damages, they are barred from recovering compensation for those damages. This means that even if you are found to be only 1 percent at fault for an accident, you cannot collect damages from the other party, despite the other party being 99 percent at fault.

“[A] plaintiff’s contributory negligence is a bar to recovery from a defendant who commits an act of ordinary negligence.” Sorrells v. M.Y.B. Hospitality Ventures, 332 N.C. 645, 648 (1992). This is not to say your situation is hopeless, even if you believe you may have contributed to your damages. There are exceptions to contributory negligence that can be asserted, and they will be briefly discussed later in this article.

Call Wallace Pierce Law today at (919) 887-7892 to reach our Durham attorneys. With more than a decade of experience, we know how to help you get back on your feet.

Determining Liability

To determine liability, an injured party must first prove that the at-fault driver was negligent. But even if you are able to prove negligence, the at-fault driver may be able to avoid liability by establishing a defense of contributory negligence. In North Carolina, contributory negligence is a defense to a claim of negligence. The doctrine of contributory negligence bars the plaintiff from recovering any compensation if the defendant can prove that the plaintiff acted negligently and contributed to the damages in any way. In order to establish contributory negligence, a defendant must prove that the plaintiff contributed to the damages to some degree.

So How Do I Know If I was Contributorily Negligent?

In determining negligence, North Carolina follows the ordinary/reasonable care standard. This means every person is required to use reasonable care to protect his or her own safety as well as the safety of others. If you fail to do so, you are likely being negligent and could be considered partly at fault if you are involved in an accident.

Everyone has a duty to use ordinary care to protect oneself and others from injury or damage. Ordinary care means the degree of care that a reasonable person would use under the same or similar circumstances. “A plaintiff is contributorily negligent when he fails to exercise such care as an ordinarily prudent person would exercise under the circumstances in order to avoid injury.” Newton v. New Hanover County Board of Education, 342 N.C. 554, 564 (1996). For more information on negligence please visit our article on the topic.

Important Note: In North Carolina, contributory negligence typically applies when the plaintiff actually contributed to the cause of the accident. For example, if a plaintiff was speeding, but it was shown that speeding didn’t cause the accident, the plaintiff will not be barred from recovery. With this being said, remember the 1 percent threshold is a very small burden to overcome. Therefore, it would likely be a very tall task to prove that your speeding did not to some degree contribute to your damages.

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