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Understanding Comparative Negligence

Understanding comparative negligence

Many people hear the term comparative negligence without really understanding what it is, or how it can impact their personal injury lawsuit. After all, this is a complicated-sounding legal term which can be confusing at first.

So, what is comparative negligence, and how does it work in real-world cases?

Put simply, comparative negligence is a rule of law which is used in accident cases where more than one person is to blame. If you have been injured in an accident – such as a car accident – but share some of the blame for the incident having occurred, comparative negligence will be used to judge the levels of fault of everyone involved.

In practice, comparative negligence is much simpler than it sounds. Understanding how the rule works is important for injury victims who have been in an accident and want to sue for compensation.

Understanding comparative negligence is the key to comprehending how a court of law will apportion blame in a personal injury case, and how this will help decide a compensatory payout. Read on for an in-depth selection of pictures, GIFs, and information, to help anyone understand comparative negligence.

If you have been involved in an accident and suffered a personal injury, you can also contact Bisnar Chase for expert help in tackling a negligence case.

What is Comparative Negligence?

In its simplest possible form, comparative negligence is a rule of law which is used to establish the fault of all parties involved in an accident. It is used when multiple parties are at least partially to blame for an accident leading to a personal injury – sometimes including the injured victim themselves.

When people sue over an accident involving an injury, such as a traffic accident, the comparative negligence rule is used to attribute responsibility to those involved. It is also used to help decide the amount of financial compensation which may be awarded.


Please note: All fault percentages used in examples throughout this page are hypothetical. They are not based on real-life court results, and are purely demonstrative.

comparative negligence
  • Driver A is turning across traffic on a green light.
  • Driver B is speeding across the intersection and checking their phone.
  • Driver B crashes into Driver A during the maneuver.
  • Driver A is injured and sues Driver B.
  • In the resulting court case, Driver A is the
    plaintiff Plaintiff - A person who brings a legal case against other parties.
    and Driver B is the
    defendant Defendant - An individual who is sued.
  • Using comparative negligence, Driver B is judged to be 80% at fault, while Driver A is found to be 20% at fault.

In this scenario, both drivers share some portion of blame. It is assigned as a percentage, in accordance with the comparative negligence rule.

This means that the compensation that Driver A is awarded will be reduced by 20%, reflecting their role in causing the accident.

If a jury awards Driver A compensation of $20,000, this will be reduced by 20%. This means that they will actually receive $16,000 - 80% of the total sum.

The comparative negligence system is seen by many people as the fairest way of compensating the pain and suffering of a victim. The victim is compensated for the negligence of others which has resulted in an injury. But their own negligent actions are also taken into account. As such, this system is widely used in the United States.

However, other systems are also used in various parts of the country. Some states use a modified version of comparative negligence, while other states use a system which blocks ANY compensation for victims that share a portion of blame for an accident – even if they are only judged to be 1% at fault.

The comparative negligence rule can also be used to divide blame in cases which feature multiple defendants.

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Comparative Negligence as a Legal Defense

While comparative negligence is chiefly a rule applied to establish fault, it can also be used as a legal defense by a defendant.

If a defendant is being sued, their lawyer may argue comparative negligence as a way of showing that the plaintiff was also a significant contributor to the accident in question.

In such cases, it is not enough for the defendant to show that the plaintiff’s actions resulted in a more significant injury. The defense must establish that the actions of the victim aided in causing the accident itself.

While a comparative negligence defense would not absolve a defendant from blame, it would reduce their level of fault – as well as any costs they are ordered to pay.

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Origins of Comparative Negligence

Comparative negligence – also known as comparative fault – was not the first rule of law used in the United States in personal injury cases. The country originally adopted a method called contributory negligence – a rule which is still used in a handful of states, and essentially precludes victims who share any degree of fault from receiving a cent in compensation. More detail on contributory negligence is included later in this guide.

From about 1824 onward, contributory negligence was the accepted rule in courts of law. However, there were rumblings of change in the second half of the 19th Century. Several states explored decisions favoring a plaintiff who shared some level of blame, when it was far less than that of the defendant. While it did not lead to a rule change at the time, it did provide an early basis for the comparative negligence law.

Comparative negligence was finally introduced in 1908, as part of the launch of a new Federal Employer’s Liability Act. Various states started to adopt differing versions of the rule, with Mississippi passing the new statute in 1910. Others followed throughout the 1930s-60s, with some states even making the switch as recently as the 1990s. California made the switch on the back of a ruling in 1975. However, a handful of states still use the old contributory negligence ruling, rather than comparative negligence.

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What is Accident Negligence?

Comparative negligence is used when multiple parties display negligence in some way. So, let’s start at the beginning – what counts as negligence?

Negligence is defined as failing to act appropriately or take the proper care, with this action leading to an accident or putting other people at risk.

For example, negligence in a car crash case could include:

comparative fault
  • Driving erratically
  • Speeding
  • Driving while intoxicated through alcohol consumption or drug use
  • Driving a vehicle which is faulty or has not been properly maintained
  • Not obeying the rules of the road
  • Distracted driving – eating, texting, drinking, or doing anything else which takes your eyes and mind off the road
  • Driving while fatigued

Each of these negligent actions represent a danger to other drivers on the road and could easily result in an accident.

These are just a few examples of types of negligence, but it is not restricted to traffic collisions. Negligence can refer to any careless behavior which leads to an accident in any setting.

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Accident Types in Comparative Negligence Cases

Any accident involving multiple parties and a personal injury of some type can result in legal action being taken, and involve a comparative negligence consideration.

These could include:

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Contributory Negligence v Comparative Negligence

As we’ve mentioned, the first rule of law used in accident cases was contributory negligence, which is extremely rigid, known as an ‘all-or-nothing’ rule.

With contributory negligence, an injury victim who is found to be in any way at fault for the accident in question is automatically barred from receiving any financial compensation. Any flexibility is eliminated from the law with this system.

This is in contrast to comparative negligence, which allows compensation to victims, even if they share a portion of blame for the accident. However, the compensation is reduced by a percentage, according to the level of blame they take.

Comparative Negligence is generally seen as a fairer legal rule to work to. While a victim might share some of the blame for an accident occurring, the other party might carry a much higher degree of responsibility. In such cases, it might seem unfair to automatically disqualify a victim from financial recovering for their loss or suffering. Contributory negligence is a hard line stance, while comparative negligence provides a middle ground.

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Pure Comparative Negligence in California

There are two forms of comparative negligence which are used in different states. The different types are named Pure Comparative Negligence and Modified Comparative Negligence. California uses the pure rule. This means that if you are involved in an accident in California but share partial blame – and decide to take legal action against the other party – the legal ruling of pure comparative negligence will be used to help decide the case. But how do the pure and modified rules differ?

Pure Comparative Negligence

Pure comparative negligence means that an injured party can take legal action after an incident, even if they were largely at fault.


comparative negligence accident
  • Driver A is speeding.
  • Driver B changes lanes without signaling, pulling in front of Driver A.
  • Driver A crashes into the rear of the car in front. The crash results in injuries to both drivers.

Driver A might be adjudged to be 90% at fault for this accident, compared to 10% fault for Driver B.

However, Driver A could still take legal action under the pure comparative negligence rule. Their compensation would however be reduced by their level of fault. In this case, they would only receive 10% of the judged value, due to their own negligence.

Modified Comparative Negligence

Modified comparative negligence is very similar to the pure version of the rule used in California. However, it has a fundamental difference.

A victim who shares blame can still take legal action, and their compensation award will still be diluted in accordance with their level of blame.

However, with the modified rule, the exact level of fault that the plaintiff shares is important. Once the injury victim passes a certain threshold of responsibility, they are no longer able to receive any compensation.

To confuse things even further, there are two types of modified comparative negligence rules – the 50% rule, and the 51% rule.

So – in a state which uses a 50% modified comparative negligence rule – an accident victim would be able to sue and receive compensation, as long as their level of fault was less than 50%.

In the 51% rule states, victims can receive damages if they share fault up to and including 50%.

A modified comparative negligence rule is seen as a middle ground between contributory negligence and pure comparative negligence. It allows those sharing fault to seek damages. But it does not reward those who show extreme negligence and are judged to have been the major contributing factor behind an accident or injury.

However, victims in California do no have to worry about the modified rules. Under the pure comparative negligence rules, they can seek compensation no matter how much fault they share – right up to 99%.

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50 States Negligence Chart – Which States Use Which Rule?

This is a full rundown of which rule is used by each area of the United States.

Pure Comparative Negligence

Alaska Arizona California Florida
Kentucky Louisiana Mississippi Missouri
New Mexico New York Rhode Island South Dakota

Modified Comparative Negligence - 50% Rule

Arkansas Colorado Georgia Idaho
Kansas Maine Nebraska North Dakota
Oklahoma Tennessee Utah West Virginia

Modified Comparative Negligence - 51% Rule

Connecticut Delaware Hawaii Illinois
Indiana Iowa Massachusetts Michigan
Minnesota Montana Nevada New Hampshire
New Jersey Ohio Oregon Pennsylvania
South Carolina Texas Vermont Wisconsin

Contributory Negligence

Alabama Maryland North Carolina Virginia
Washington D.C.

comparative negligence states
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Comparative Negligence Case Studies

The original comparative negligence case in California was Li v. Yellow Cab Co. At the time, California was still using the all-or-nothing contributory negligence system. However, when this case was taken to the California Supreme Court on appeal, the state decided to adopt the comparative negligence rule.

The accident which sparked the Li v Yellow Cab Co. court case happened in Los Angeles in 1968. The plaintiff, Nga Li, was traveling on the inside lane of Alvarado Street, approaching Third Street. Before reaching the intersection, she attempted to turn left – across the three lanes running in the opposite direction – and into a service station on the other side of the street.

As Li made the left turn, a taxi from the Yellow Cab Co. approached from the opposite direction and struck the rear end of her car. The crash resulted in major damage to the car and injuries to Li, and she decided to take legal action.

In the trial, it was established that both drivers shared some level of fault. The taxi was traveling too quickly and passed through a yellow light on its way through the intersection, which is at the crest of a slight hill. It was judged that the speed and manner of passing through the intersection was unsafe.

pure comparative negligence

However, the court decided that Nga Li was also negligent, and that her left turn with a vehicle approaching created a hazard.

By the letter of the contributory negligence law at the time, Li was therefore automatically barred from receiving any compensation for her injuries and the vehicle damage sustained in the crash.

But Li decided to appeal the ruling, and took it to the California Supreme Court. In 1975, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling and, in doing so, made the decision to adopt comparative negligence.

In making this decision, the court said: “The all-or-nothing rule of contributory negligence can and ought to be superseded by a rule which assesses liability in proportion to fault.”

This set a new precedent for comparative negligence to be used in future cases in California.

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What Compensation Will You Get in a Comparative Negligence Case?

In personal injury cases, any financial awards will be dependent on a whole range of factors, such as the victim’s medical bills relating to the accident, the cost of property damage, lost wages, and potential future rehabilitation expenses, as well as compensation for pain and suffering.

As such, there is no set compensation amount that can be expected. It will be entirely dependent on the specific circumstances of an individual case.

In a comparative negligence case, the amount decided on will be diluted based on the percentage of fault which is attributed to the person in question.

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Comparative Negligence with Multiple Defendants

Comparative negligence can also help determine compensation awards in cases involving multiple defendants.

The rule can be used to assign fault percentages to each defendant, which will determine how much each has to pay in compensation to the victim.


  • A case involves one plaintiff and two defendants – the plaintiff is not at fault.
  • Defendant A may be found to be 75% at fault, with Defendant B attributed 25% of the blame.
  • As a result, defendant A would be responsible for paying 75% of any compensation awarded to the plaintiff.

In some cases, there may be two at-fault parties involved in an accident who both decide to sue the other. Once again, comparative fault could be used to decide on the correct level of fault for each party, with both paying (and receiving) compensation, which will be reduced based on their fault percentage.


  • Driver A and Driver B are involved in a two-car crash.
  • Both drivers share some portion of fault and they BOTH sue each other.
  • Driver A is found to be 55% at fault, while Driver B is found to be 45% at fault.
  • If ordered to do so, they will both have to compensate the other financially. However, Driver A will have to pay more, due to their higher level of fault.
  • In a state using a modified comparative negligence system, Driver A would not be able to recoup any compensation, because they fall over the 50/51% fault threshold.
  • In California, where pure comparative negligence is used, both drivers are able to receive compensation.

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Legal Help with a Comparative Negligence Case

Trying to get your head around the negligence system can be a minefield. Hopefully our guide has provided a good understanding of the comparative negligence rules and applications. However, it is still best to leave your case in the hands of the expert personal injury attorneys at Bisnar Chase.

Whether you have been involved in a car accident, or have suffered another kind of personal injury in a shared-blame situation, Bisnar Chase can help. With 40 years in business and more than $650 million won for our clients, we are at our best when fighting for personal injury justice. Bisnar Chase has a 99% success rate and specializes in achieving the best possible outcomes for clients. Trust our skilled attorneys to navigate comparative negligence regulations, argue your case effectively, and secure the best possible compensation package for your pain and suffering.

For help with a negligence injury case, contact Bisnar Chase now at (800) 561-4887.

Comparative Negligence Info-graphic

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