Comparative Fault and Joint Liability

Injury victims are entitled to seek compensation when they sustain an injury that is caused by another individual. On the other hand, if the injury victim’s own carelessness was the sole cause of the injury, the victim will probably receive no compensation unless the injury was work-related and covered by workers’ compensation.

The question of compensation becomes complicated when more than one person is at fault. Fault is often shared by the injury victim and by a negligent party. A store that allows merchandise to jut into an aisle from a low shelf is at fault for creating a tripping hazard, but a customer who is texting while walking down the aisle and trips over the merchandise may also be at fault for not paying attention to his or her surroundings.

Comparative Fault Principles

When the accident victim and at least one other party are at fault, most states apply a legal rule known as comparative fault (or comparative negligence). The jury is instructed to compare the fault of the injury victim to the fault of other parties who shared responsibility for the accident. A judge then uses the jury’s determination to decide whether the injury victim is entitled to all, some, or none of the compensation awarded by the jury.

Different states apply various rules when determining comparative fault. Some states will only allow an injury victim to recover compensation if the victim was less than 50% at fault for the accident. A variation of that approach limits recovery to victims who were 50% or less at fault.

Some states only allow injury victims to recover compensation from parties who were more at fault than the victim. For example, if the accident victim was 20% at fault, a second person was 10% at fault, and a third person was 70% at fault, the injury victim will be allowed to recover compensation from the third individual but not from the second.

Other states allow victims to recover compensation from any other party whose negligence contributed to the accident, even if that person was less negligent than the accident victim. Only a few states will not allow the injury victim to recover compensation if the victim had any responsibility for the accident.

States with comparative fault rules usually require compensation awarded to an injury victim to be reduced in proportion to fault. To use a simple example involving two drivers who collided, if the injury victim was 20% at fault, the victim will recover 80% of full compensation for their accident injuries.

Joint Liability

Joint liability refers to shared responsibility for compensating an injury victim. While comparative fault rules determine whether an accident victim can recover compensation and, if so, the percentage of full compensation the victim can receive, joint liability determines how the responsibility for paying that compensation should be shared when more than one negligent party caused the victim’s injury.

The traditional joint liability rule allows a victim to recover compensation from any negligent party who is able to pay it. If one party pays full compensation to the injury victim, it is that party’s burden to seek a contribution from the other negligent party.

For example, assume that two negligent parties contributed to the accident victim’s injuries. Let’s say that one party was 20% at fault and the other party was 80% at fault. Under the traditional rule, the victim would be entitled to collect full compensation from the party who was 20% at fault, leaving that party to seek reimbursement for 80% of the compensation from the other party.

Joint liability rules become important when two parties share responsibility for injuring an accident victim, but only one party has adequate insurance. The traditional rule is premised on the idea that it is more fair for an accident victim to recover full compensation from a party who had some responsibility for the accident than to leave the victim with inadequate compensation simply because the party who was more at fault lacks the resources to pay a judgment.

Unfortunately for accident victims, many states have replaced the traditional rule of joint liability with a rule that apportions responsibility for paying compensation according to the parties’ comparative fault. In the example above, the party who was 20% at fault would pay only 20% of full compensation even if the party who was 80% at fault was uninsured and unable to pay anything.

Some states apply the traditional rule to economic damages (such as medical expenses and lost wages) while applying the comparative rule to noneconomic damages (such as pain and suffering). A personal injury lawyer in the state where you were injured can explain how that state’s joint liability rules might affect your ability to obtain compensation for your injuries.