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Contributory Negligence in Alabama Personal Injury Cases

Offered by Dean Waite & Associates LLC

Make sure you know how the law applies to your situation

In every state, you have the right to pursue compensation if someone else’s behavior led to your injury, but the particular legal standards that apply vary greatly from state to state. If you’ve been hurt in Alabama, you may have heard the term “contributory negligence” thrown around. This is an important doctrine that can jeopardize your entire claim, and it’s important to know what you might be up against.

What is negligence?

In personal injury law, negligence is an action or omission that causes harm to another person because of carelessness. We use the word “accident” a lot in personal injury claims, but we’re not talking about true accidents – we’re talking about preventable incidents caused by someone’s careless behavior.

There are four basic elements needed to establish negligence in personal injury claims:

  • Duty of care: the negligent party had a legal responsibility for someone’s safety. For instance, motorists have a duty of care to operate their vehicles in a careful and responsible manner.
  • Breach: the negligent party did not meet the duty of care, for instance by speeding or texting and driving.
  • Causation: the negligent party’s careless behavior caused or contributed to someone’s injury.
  • Damages: the injured person suffered real harm as a result of the incident.

This can be pretty straightforward when there is a single negligent party. For instance, if someone rear-ends a stopped car, negligence on the part of the driver in the rear vehicle is usually not hard to establish.

However, in some situations, there are multiple negligent parties that share responsibility for an incident. For instance, if one vehicle changes lanes without signaling, and a speeding vehicle already in the lane is unable to stop in time because of their high speed, causing a crash, both drivers are likely at least partially responsible. That’s where we get into the principle of comparative negligence.

When multiple parties are at fault, responsibility is shared

Every state, including Alabama, uses some form of comparative negligence to divide responsibility when multiple parties are responsible for an accident. The damages (financial compensation) are paid by each party in proportion to their percentage of fault.

For instance, if you were hurt in a multi-vehicle crash causing $100,000 in damages, and two other drivers were found 80% and 20% responsible respectively, then the first driver would be responsible for $80,000 and the second driver would pay $20,000.

Note that in this scenario, the injured person (the plaintiff) is not one of the at-fault parties. Where Alabama differs from other states is in situations where the injured person is partially at fault.

The doctrine of contributory negligence can bar you from recovery completely

“Contributory negligence” is a legal defense that the at-fault party (the defendant) can use in court in Alabama. Essentially, it means that if you are even partially responsible for your accident, you may not be able to get compensation at all.

To return to the multi-vehicle accident example, suppose one driver was 80% at fault and you were 20% at fault. In most states, you’d still be able to recover; your recovery would simply be reduced by 20 percent. But in Alabama, you generally cannot recover at all in this scenario because of the contributory negligence defense.

Only a few states still use contributory negligence, and advocates for injured people in Alabama and the other contributory negligence states have been pushing lawmakers to change this outdated standard for many years. However, for the moment, this is still the law, and if you’re injured in Alabama, you need to know what you’re up against.

How to fight contributory negligence in Alabama

There are two general exceptions to the contributory negligence rule in Alabama. First, courts have held that any plaintiff under age 14 cannot be contributorily negligent (and plaintiffs under seven cannot be negligent at all), so the rule doesn’t apply to them. The same exception can also apply to plaintiffs who have mental handicaps or limited competence.

Second, there is the “wanton behavior” exception, which is defined as acting “with a conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.” For instance, if you were injured by someone who knew they were very drunk and drove home anyway, you may still be able to recover, even if some negligence on your part (such as failure to signal) also contributed to the accident.

Unless one of those exceptions applies, though, you’re stuck trying to prove that you did not contribute to the injury, and that means you need an attorney on your side who can build an airtight case. The sooner you get a lawyer involved, the better, as your attorney can handle negotiations on your behalf and make sure you don’t inadvertently say something that could jeopardize your entire case. If you’ve been hurt in an accident in Alabama, you need to talk to a personal injury lawyer who knows Alabama law right away.

Dean Waite & Associates is a personal injury law firm in Mobile, AL.

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