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Comparative Negligence in Auto Insurance

In the different states around the country, there are several different systems of auto insurance law, each with many individual variations. The comparative negligence system is relatively new to law, having only surfaced in the past 40 years or so. As time goes by it is becoming more of a fixture in state auto insurance regulations across the country. Comparative negligence is a unique doctrine forming the basis for auto insurance law in certain states, and as such deserves the understanding of car insurance consumers in those states.

Modified Form of Contributory Negligence

Prior to the development of the doctrine of comparative negligence, pure contributory negligence was the standard in auto insurance law. Contributory negligence is a legal system which does not allow injured parties to sue for damages stemming from accidents that are even partially their fault. The doctrine of pure contributory negligence essentially concludes that one person and only one person is summarily to blame in any auto accident. That person becomes completely and totally liable in the accident, and has no rights whatsoever to sue for damages. Any other parties involved in that same accident can sue the one assigned such liability or negligence to the full extent of the damages they suffered. Pure contributory negligence has waned in popularity nationwide, though it is still in use in a handful of states as well as the District of Columbia. Many more states have gravitated toward some form of comparative negligence in their auto accident law.

Comparative negligence is a doctrine which is truly a modified form of contributory negligence auto insurance law. In fact, it is sometimes called non-absolute contributory negligence to set it apart from pure or absolute contributory negligence doctrine. Comparative negligence doctrine allows for the finding of more than one person or driver bearing some responsibility for an auto accident. Comparative negligence or non-absolute contributory negligence seeks to award financial damages based on each involved party's degree of fault in a car accident.

Two Forms of Comparative Negligence

There are two main forms of comparative negligence doctrine being used in states today. Some states use pure comparative negligence, while others subscribe to the more common modified comparative negligence doctrine.

Pure comparative negligence, also called the 100 percent type, is a doctrine under which the claimant in an accident situation can collect for damages up to the total amount of their own accident-related expenses minus their own percentage of the damage that was their fault. In other words, a percentage amount of blame for the accident is assigned to each involved driver, and each driver summarily is able to claim only a portion of their damages based on their blame. As an example, if a claimant suffered $5,000 in damages, and was ruled 20 percent at fault for the accident, he or she could collect $4,000, or the total amount minus 20 percent.

In the system called modified comparative negligence, also called the 50 percent or 49 percent type, there is another limit attached to claimants' ability to collect. This type only allows a claimant to collect damages from the other party's auto insurance provider if that claimant has been determined to be less than 50 percent (49 percent in some states) at fault for the accident. The modified comparative negligence doctrine thus prevents any driver who is more than half at fault for an accident to make any kind of claim for damages at all. The thinking behind this doctrine is to bring it more into line with thinking which generally holds that those who are primarily to blame for an accident should be held liable for it and should not be able to collect monies via a lawsuit stemming from such an accident.

Across the country today, there are four states (plus the District of Columbia) operating under a pure contributory negligence system, with 13 using pure comparative negligence and 33 basing their laws on the doctrine of modified comparative negligence [1]. Comparative negligence has steadily gained ground through the years and is firmly seated as the dominant form of auto insurance and accident law.

After an accident occurs, it is the task of the auto insurance company accident adjuster to determine who was at fault to what extent. He or she will expertly assess the scene and take in all available information to decide who was to blame for what portion of the accident, assigning percentages to each involved party. The specifics of the accident circumstances will all be taken into consideration, but there are no hard and fast rules or formulas involved. In fact, the process of assigning blame is actually somewhat of a negotiation. If you have been involved in an injury accident, it is a good idea to hire a skilled personal injury lawyer to negotiate on your behalf with the adjuster to get the lowest possible percentage of blame assigned to you for the accident.

Once you have reached an agreement, the next stage is the payout on claims. However, not all adjusters and claimants are able to come to an agreement this easily. For this reason, some of these cases end up in the court system. Again, the value of a good injury lawyer cannot be overstated.

Fault and Auto Insurance Coverage

Although you can never predict the outcome of such a case ahead of time, there are some things you can do to prepare yourself in any kind of fault or negligence situation. For example, as a car insurance consumer you can pick up coverage to protect you in any fault circumstance. Collision insurance protects you against the cost of repairing damage to your vehicle following an auto accident, regardless of fault. Personal injury protection (PIP) is available in many states (and is actually required in some). PIP insures the policy holder against medical costs related to injury accidents, and pays out regardless of fault. It is actually also called no-fault coverage.

In certain situations, the determination of fault and of the payment of damages may be complicated by the other driver's lack of auto insurance coverage. For situations such as this, you could consider picking up uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage, which us actually mandatory in some states as well but optional in others. Uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage protect you in circumstances where the other driver is found negligent in the accident but does not carry adequate liability insurance to cover your damages. This type of coverage also protects you if you are the victim of a hit and run driver. A hit and run accident is considered an uninsured driver situation. If you are hit by a driver of a stolen car this coverage will protect you in that circumstance as well.

Comparative negligence is an important and influential car accident law doctrine that you can find in one form or another in all but a handful of U.S. states today. Having a better understanding of this basic doctrine on an abstract level can help you better understand how to apply it on concrete when an accident occurs. Whatever form of comparative negligence your state uses, be sure you understand its impact on your insurance needs.

[1] Retrieved 2010-01-16.



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