What Is Contributory Negligence in Personal Injury Cases?

Many laws, regulations, and policies transform over time. One aspect of North Carolina personal injury law that appears firmly rooted is the adherence to pure contributory negligence.

Since 1869 (and codified in 1979), the Tarheel State has generally prohibited the award of damages to anyone who is even 1% responsible for the injury. Almost every other state in the union has eliminated pure contributory negligence rules.

This strict law remains on the books in only five U.S. jurisdictions:

  • North Carolina
  • Alabama
  • Maryland
  • Virginia
  • District of Columbia

At Jetton & Meredith, PLLC our attorneys have extensive experience in determining whether there is a standing for a personal injury case in North Carolina as well as potential defenses to overcome it.

Contributory vs Comparative Negligence

The most recent argument against North Carolina’s use of contributory negligence was in 2019. The plaintiff was injured when she tripped and fell at a mall. The jury found negligence on the part of both the plaintiff and defendant. Following contributory negligence, the plaintiff received no award. The plaintiff then sought a review by the North Carolina Supreme Court prior to a determination by the state Court of Appeals. In November 2019 the state Supreme Court denied the petition. The following year, the Court of Appeals confirmed that contributory negligence will stay in effect.

There are three exceptions to North Carolina’s contributory negligence rule:

  • Age and Mental Incapacity. A person who is too young or lacks the mental capacity to avoid the injury may still recover damages even if they bear some responsibility.
  • Last Clear Chance Doctrine. A plaintiff may recover damages if the defendant knew of the risk for harm and failed to take a clear opportunity to avoid it.
  • Gross Negligence. Damages are possible if the defendant acted with conscious disregard for the safety of others.

Unlike North Carolina, which bars damages to a plaintiff with as little as 1% responsibility, states that follow pure comparative negligence take the opposite approach.

Pure comparative fault offers the damaged party an opportunity to seek compensation even if they are 99% at fault, although the award is reduced by the percentage of responsibility. For example, if someone is 99% responsible for damages of $100,000, they would only receive $1,000. There are 12 U.S. states that adhere to comparative fault.

A modified version of comparative fault is followed in 33 states:

  • A dozen of those states follow a 50% rule allowing plaintiffs to recover damages if they are 49 percent or less at fault. The amount awarded is reduced by the percentage for which they are responsible.
  • A 51% rule, followed in 21 states, prohibits the plaintiff from recovering damages if they are 51% or more at fault.

South Dakota is the one state that uses a combination law known as slight/gross negligence comparative law. One party can only recover damages if their responsibility is no more than “slight” (up to interpretation) and the other party’s fault is gross (again, up to interpretation). If that distinction cannot be made, then the case cannot move forward.

Time Limits to File Injury Lawsuits in NC

North Carolina limits how long after an accident a person can file a personal injury lawsuit. In most cases, the statute of limitations is three years. Legal action must be taken within three years of the accident or when the injury becomes apparent.

The three-year timeframe is applicable in the following cases:

Damages Available in Eligible Personal Injury Cases

Plaintiffs who meet the state’s strict pure contributory negligence threshold can seek compensatory and punitive damages.

Compensatory damages can be economic or non-economic. Economic damages include paying for medical bills, lost wages, future wages, prescriptions, current and future rehabilitation, and other costs. Non-economic damages include pain, suffering, loss of consortium, and emotional distress. Punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant for fraud, malice, or willful/wanton conduct.

Joint and Several Liability Rule

When there is more than one defendant in a personal injury case, the plaintiff cannot sue multiple parties for the same damages. Instead, the plaintiff sues one party to recover all damages. The defendant held liable in that case can then sue the others responsible to pay their share.

Understand Your Rights in NC Accident Cases

A skilled attorney at Jetton & Meredith, PLLC understands what is required to make the legal argument that minimizes the plaintiff’s responsibility and maximizes the opportunity for fair compensation. We help our clients pursue all avenues for past, current, and future costs related to their injuries.

All personal injury cases are taken on a contingency basis. We only get paid if we recover compensation for you. Schedule a free consultation by calling (704) 931-5535 or submitting our online form.