The cause of any kind of accident is not always clear and contributory negligence may be very important. Of course, one party may be completely to blame in a road traffic accident or an employer may have shown blatant disregard to safety legislation leading to an accident at work. However it is also possible that more than one, or even many, factors contributed to the accident that has happened. Moreover, one of those factors may have been the negligence of the injured party himself.
How then can blame be apportioned? Is the injured party entitled to any form of compensation if he or she has contributed, albeit slightly, to their own downfall?
Contributory negligence is the legal pinciple that an injured party i.e. the plaintiff, may possibly have contributed to his or her own injury by acting in a negligent manner when faced with the obvious and known conditions. When this is compared with the negligence of the defendant (or defendants), the extent of contributory negligence may defeat the plaintiff’s case (i.e. the claim will be unsuccessful) or reduce the amount of compensation awarded.
Perhaps the most obvious example of contributory negligence and that which is best recognised by the public is the failure to wear a seatbelt in a road traffic accident. If you make a personal injury claim and the other driver can prove that you were not wearing a seatbelt when the accident took place, your total claim for compensation will normally be reduced by 25%. The reasons behind this principle are rather straightforward. First of all, we are required by law (with very few exceptions) to wear a seatbelt whether we are driving or travelling as a passenger in a motor vehicle, and secondly, it is assumed that in all likelihood the injuries sustained by the plaintiff would have been less serious had he or she had been wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident.
Other examples of contributory negligence are, for example, the failure to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle or the failure to follow recognised safety procedures when using tools or machinery in the workplace. Indeed, the principle can be extended to virtually all genres of personal injury claims.
The principle of contributory negligence is therefore used by a defendant as a defence (or perhaps more appropriately a partial defence) in order to reduce the amount of compensation that will be paid to the plaintiff.
It should be noted that the principle of attributing a ‘percentage’ of the blame to the plaintiff can be extended to the situation where two or more parties may be at fault for the plaintiff’s injuries and therefore the liability may be shared between the two defendants on a percentage basis.
A good example of this situation is a ‘pile-up’ road traffic accident whereby car A caused the initial accident by running a red light and crashed into car B. Car C however was driving too fast and was unable to stop in time and therefore crashed into the back of car B causing further damage and injury. As plaintiff, B will then sue both A and C whose insurers will, in all probability, agree to accept liability for B’s injuries and damage on a percentage basis e.g. A may agree to pay 75% of B’s compensation while C will pay the remaining 25%.
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