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Can I Recover in a Car Accident Injury Case if I'm Partially to Blame?

Often, accidents occur as the result of the negligence of multiple people--sometimes even the negligence of the person who suffered the greatest injuries. It can be difficult for that individual to cast any blame on another party. For anyone involved or injured in such an accident--be it a car accident, construction accident, slip and fall, or the like--it's important to understand the related personal injury law.

In Massachusetts, we follow the doctrine of comparative negligence, which is found in Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 231, section 85 and dates back to the early seventies. Prior to adopting comparative negligence, the Commonwealth followed the doctrine of contributory negligence. Contributory negligence was a pretty unforgiving doctrine. Let's start with an explanation of that, so that you have a sense of how the current law came to be.

If Massachusetts still followed contributory negligence, which it did for cases arising prior to 1971, it would mean that if your own negligence contributed to your injury, your recovery would be barred, regardless of the negligence of the other party. For instance, if you ran out onto a street without first looking for oncoming traffic and then were hit by a drunk driver, you'd be unable to recover anything if the jury found that your own action of running out into the street without looking was a contributing factor in your injury.

If you give it some thought, you'll agree that there is really an endless spectrum of potential fact patterns. That spectrum spans from an injured party having zero percent of the fault to 100%, and everything in between. The doctrine of comparative negligence really better addresses the issue.

With comparative negligence, under the Massachusetts statute, an injured party can recover when his or her own negligence was less than that of the negligence of the defendant. Further, the injured party's recovery is reduced by his or her own percentagefault.

Let's look at a fact pattern to illustrate this concept. Let's say Patty Plaintiff is driving down the highway at 80 miles per hour, where the speed limit is 65. Meanwhile, Denny Defendant has gotten a flat tire and has pulled over to the side of the road on the highway overpass. Having loosened all the nuts from the flat tire, Denny places his tire iron on the guard rail / railing of the bridge, directly behind him and over the highway where Patty's driving. Just as Patty is approaching, Denny pulls the tire off the vehicle, and as he steps back, he bumps the iron off the bridge. The iron falls down towards the highway below. Patty sees it, but not until the last second, and due to her excessive speed, she's unable to swerve to avoid the impact. The iron goes through the windshield and plunges into the chest of Patty. She loses control of the vehicle and hits the median and is severally injured, although she survives.

She's treated, recovers with some permanent impairment, and then brings suit against Denny. The case goes to trial and the jury is instructed to apportion fault between the parties. The jury finds Denny 90% at fault and Patty 10% at fault. The jury determines damages to be $250,000, but that figure is reduced by 10% to $225,000 to account for Patty's own negligence.

Could Denny successfully recover against Patty? No, because his fault exceeded that of hers. What if they were both equally at fault? In that scenario, neither party would recover, even though Denny had zero damages and Patty likely had extensive medical bills, property damage, and pain and suffering.

If you've sustained an injury in a car accident or other accident, consider how the doctrine of comparative negligence applies. Better yet - consider it before you get in the accident and be careful out there!

The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.

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