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How do comparative and contributory negligence differ?

In the civil justice system of South Carolina, the court bases any personal injury or tort case on fault or negligence. Different states have adopted various doctrines to apply when it comes to awarding monetary judgments, with comparative negligence and contributory negligence being the two primary types of fault. Although South Carolina uses a version of the comparative negligence system, some neighboring states use the contributory doctrine.

Understanding both may become important depending on the state in which you suffer injuries. Not all accidents result from the negligence of only one party, and you may carry the blame for a percentage of the fault.

A hypothetical scenario

Using the following example might help to explain the difference between comparative and contributory negligence:

You and a business associate go to a restaurant for a business lunch at which you share a bottle of wine. The other person orders a second bottle and drinks a few too many. When you return to your office, that person stumbles and knocks over a bookshelf that falls onto him, leaving him with a severely injured shoulder. He sues you for negligence in failing to secure the bookshelf to the wall.

  • Pure Comparative Negligence: This doctrine compares the level of fault of both the plaintiff and the defendant, and awards the plaintiff the portion that was not his or her fault. Pure comparative negligence would pay an injured victim's losses even if he or she were responsible for 99 percent of the incident that caused the injury. So, despite your argument that your business associate caused his own inebriation, the court may hold you liable for one percent of his claim.
  • Modified Comparative Negligence: Some states, including South Carolina, have modified this rule to prevent such damage recovery. This version will pay the plaintiff's damages only if his or her contribution to the fault does not exceed 50 percent. This means that your lunch partner will not receive a monetary judgment because his portion of the negligence was not less than 51 percent. However, if the court finds him 40 percent liable, he will receive 60 percent of the claim for damages.
  • Contributory Negligence: This doctrine is typically regarded as exceptionally harsh because it disallows any recovery for damages even if a person's own negligence contributed only one or 10 percent to his or her own injury. It is typically not difficult for a defendant to prove that a plaintiff contributed in some way to his or her injuries -- regardless of how insignificant that contribution was.

Why is it important to understand the differences?

Although South Carolina applies the modified comparative negligence doctrine, you may suffer injuries in a neighboring state that applies contributory negligence. If you made even the slightest error that contributed to your accident, you might recover nothing. If you find yourself in such a situation, there will be resources available to you to assist with the navigation of any ensuing legal procedures.

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