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What is Pure Comparative Fault?

A problem often debated by legal theorists and philosophers of law is that of what should be done when awarding damages, if neither party in an injury case is totally blameless. Far from being a debate over abstract concepts, this question is central to the law of tort. One solution to this dilemma is known as the doctrine of “pure comparative fault.”

Prior to the evolution of comparative fault, the common law used the doctrine of contributory fault as a skilled Personal Injury Lawyer Milwaukee, WI trusts can explain. Under this doctrine, also known as contributory negligence, a plaintiff could not collect damages if he or she could be shown to have made even the slightest contribution to an accident.

The law of tort holds that any accidentally-injured party has the right to be compensated, but at the same time holds that no party should benefit from their own negligence. Pure comparative fault proposes to solve this dilemma by first awarding damages, but reducing the amount of those damages by the injured party’s degree of fault relative to the circumstances of the accident. This can be better understood by example.

“A” has filed a lawsuit against “B” seeking damages from an auto accident. The jury finds in favor of “A” and awards a verdict of $100,000. The same jury also decides that “A” was 40% responsible for the accident. Instead of collecting the full $100,000 award, “A” collects only $60,000, 40% less.

The pure comparative fault doctrine thus holds that a plaintiff can collect at least some damages, even if they are found to be 99% to blame for an accident. Carried to this extreme, in the example given in the previous paragraph “A” would see his or her $100,000 award reduced to $1,000. Thirteen states have adopted statutes based on this doctrine: Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Washington.

Supporters of pure comparative fault hold that this doctrine is the most equitable, in that both the plaintiff and defendant stand on an equal footing when the plaintiff is penalized by the degree of his or her contribution to the accident from which damages are sought. Furthermore, in cases of multiple defendants, each defendant is liable for only their degree of responsibility for the plaintiff’s injuries, and that percentage is then reduced by the degree of the plaintiff’s responsibility for their own injuries.

Two variations of pure comparative fault are currently in use in the United States: “modified comparative fault, 50% bar” and “modified comparative fault, 51% bar.”

In the modified comparative fault, 50% bar rule, a plaintiff may recover damages only if the plaintiff’s degree of responsibility is less than 50% but the damages awarded are reduced by the percentage that the plaintiff’s actions were found to have contributed to his or her injuries. If the plaintiff is found to have been 50% or more responsible for the accident, the plaintiff cannot collect any damages.

The 51% bar rule is the same as the 50% bar rule, with the only exception being that the plaintiff is barred from collecting damages if he or she is found to be more than 50% responsible for their own injuries. As with the 50% bar rule, the plaintiff’s damages are reduced by the degree to which they were found to be partially responsible for their injuries.

To summarize, the doctrine of pure comparative fault has evolved in response to the less-equitable doctrine of contributory fault by allowing at least some damages to be collected regardless of the degree of shared responsibility.

Thanks to our friends and contributor from Hickey & Turim for their insight into signing waivers.