May 01, 2024 | CHASENBOSCOLO

After a serious accident, you may assume you have the right to pursue compensation for your injuries and losses if someone else caused the accident. However, in some states, including Maryland and Virginia, a legal doctrine called contributory negligence can prevent you from collecting damages, even if the other party is primarily to blame.

What Is Contributory Negligence?

Contributory negligence is a legal defense that defendants (usually insurance companies) can raise in personal injury cases. If the injured plaintiff is found to have contributed to the accident through their negligence – even slightly – they are barred from recovering any compensation from the defendant.

The classic example is a pedestrian who gets hit by a car while crossing the street outside of a crosswalk. The driver may have been speeding and distracted. But if the pedestrian’s failure to cross at the intersection is deemed to have contributed to the crash, they likely can’t recover any compensation under pure contributory negligence rules.

This is true even if the plaintiff’s degree of fault is minimal compared to the defendant’s. With contributory negligence, any negligence by the injured plaintiff is a total bar to recovering damages. Critics argue this all-or-nothing approach is unfair to victims.

What States Still Use Contributory Negligence?

Only a handful of states still use contributory negligence in accident cases:

  • Maryland
  • Virginia
  • Alabama
  • North Carolina
  • Washington, D.C.

All other states have shifted to using comparative negligence instead. This change followed a growing consensus that contributory negligence unjustly denies compensation to injured people.

Contributory Negligence vs. Comparative Negligence

Comparative negligence is a more forgiving standard that allocates fault between the parties. Under this doctrine, an injured plaintiff’s compensation is reduced by their assigned percentage of fault but not barred entirely.

For example, let’s say a jury finds that a car accident victim suffered $100,000 in losses but was 20 percent responsible for the crash, while the defendant was 80 percent at fault. Under comparative negligence, the plaintiff’s damages would be reduced by 20 percent, allowing them to recover $80,000.

Most states now follow a modified comparative fault rule. This prohibits plaintiffs from recovering damages if their portion of the blame exceeds a set threshold, usually 50 percent. So, if you are found 45 percent responsible for an accident, you can still recover 55 percent of your damages, but if your fault is 51 percent or more, you recover nothing.

Pure Contributory Negligence: A Harsher Standard

Maryland, Virginia, and other holdout states follow the much stricter pure contributory negligence rule. Under pure contributory negligence, an accident victim is completely barred from recovering if they contributed to their injuries in any way.

Pure contributory negligence can devastate seriously injured people. It can block accident victims, even those who are 99 percent innocent, from collecting badly needed compensation because they are assigned 1 percent of the fault. Even if their injuries and losses are catastrophic and life-changing, the pure contributory negligence doctrine acts as an impenetrable shield for the primarily responsible defendant. 

Contributory vs. Comparative Negligence: Key Differences

The core difference between contributory negligence and comparative fault is how much they punish plaintiffs for contributing to an accident. Comparative negligence apportions damages based on degrees of fault, while contributory negligence denies plaintiffs any recovery if they share the blame.

Here are the key differences at a glance:

Contributory Negligence

  • Used in only four states and Washington, D.C.
  • Plaintiff’s minimal fault acts as a total bar to recovery
  • All-or-nothing approach
  • Seen as harsher toward accident victims

Comparative Negligence

  • Used in most states
  • Plaintiff’s damages are reduced by their percentage of fault
  • Plaintiff is barred from recovery only if their fault exceeds 50 percent (modified comparative), or is not barred at all (pure comparative)
  • Tries to match compensation to degrees of responsibility

Maryland Contributory Negligence Laws

Maryland is one of the few remaining pure contributory negligence states. Despite criticism and challenges, Maryland’s highest court has upheld the standard based on stare decisis (respect for legal precedent).

This means Maryland accident victims can be denied much-needed compensation due to even 1 percent of the fault being allocated to them. If a drunk driving accident seriously injures you but you are found partially negligent because you were speeding, you may be totally out of luck and face a future of uncompensated disability.

Virginia Contributory Negligence Laws

Virginia also remains committed to pure contributory negligence. The Virginia Supreme Court has refused to replace contributory negligence with comparative fault, deferring to the state legislature. But bills to make the change have failed to advance in Virginia’s General Assembly.

Like in Maryland, this means Virginia accident victims deemed slightly responsible for their injuries are shut out of the civil justice system and denied the right to compensation from the primary wrongdoer. Even if the defendant’s negligence was egregious and caused catastrophic harm, the slightest degree of victim fault destroys the case.

Protecting Your Rights Under Contributory Negligence

Contributory negligence makes it critically important to work with a skilled injury attorney if you’ve been in an accident in Maryland or Virginia. The liable party’s insurer will search for any way to pin a portion of the blame on you and use that to deny your claim.

At CHASENBOSCOLO, our attorneys are deeply familiar with insurers’ tactics to assert contributory negligence. We can refute these arguments and protect your ability to recover maximum compensation.

If an insurance company is alleging you contributed to your injuries, do not try to handle this on your own. The insurer will use your lack of legal knowledge to get your claim tossed out of court. You need an experienced advocate to fight this battle for you.

Contact an Experienced Personal Injury Attorney Today

If you’ve suffered injuries in an accident in Maryland or Virginia, do not let the region’s harsh contributory negligence laws prevent you from pursuing the compensation you deserve. The dedicated attorneys at CHASENBOSCOLO are here to protect accident victims from losing their legal rights due to this unforgiving standard.

Contact us today at (301) 220-0050 for a free consultation. We will review your case and discuss how to overcome any contributory negligence defenses that may arise. With our experienced legal team, you can fight for fair injury compensation in Maryland or Virginia courts.