Negligence is a key concept in personal injury law. Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute defines negligence as “a failure to behave with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances.”

In personal injury lawsuits, plaintiffs are generally required to prove the four elements of negligence in order to establish a valid personal injury claim and receive compensation for damages. However, the specific laws regarding negligence vary by state. All states use the concepts of comparative negligence or contributory negligence to attribute fault and determine whether a plaintiff is eligible for damages.

Comparative vs. Contributory Negligence

Most states follow a comparative negligence rule, in which the amount of compensation a plaintiff can receive depends on their proportion of fault for the accident. States follow one of two approaches: pure comparative negligence or modified comparative negligence.

The pure comparative negligence rule allows parties to collect for damages even if they are 99 percent at fault for the accident. However, the proportion of damages they are eligible for is limited by their degree of fault. Modified comparative negligence, on the other hand, dictates that parties may only receive damages for an accident if their percentage of fault is below a determined threshold. Depending on the state, that level is usually 50 percent or 51 percent.

Contributory negligence laws are much rarer. This type of law states that a party may only receive compensation if they are not at fault at all. The opposite of pure comparative negligence, this rule does not allow a party that is even 1 percent responsible for causing the accident to receive any damages.

States With Contributory Negligence Laws

In the past, the contributory negligence rule was more common. Over time, however, more states have adopted comparative negligence. Today, only 5 jurisdictions still use contributory negligence: Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

To see a complete breakdown of types of negligence rules by state, check out our interactive map of comparative and contributory negligence.

Will Contributory Negligence Prevent You From Receiving Compensation?

If you live in a contributory negligence state and are wanting to file a personal injury lawsuit, you may be feeling worried. You may suspect your negligence contributed to the accident, and that you may not be able to recover damages as a result.

However, this fear should never stop you from talking to a personal injury lawyer about the possibility of filing a lawsuit. Negligence is very difficult, if not impossible, for the average person to establish, and applying this concept to specific situations is a task that should be left to an experienced attorney. 

Because there are exceptions to pure contributory negligence that vary by state and circumstances, you should always consult with a qualified lawyer in your state. For example, if you were injured in a car crash, a local car accident attorney will be able to discuss the specifics of your case with you, investigate the situation, and determine whether you may be eligible for compensation. In the meantime, you should avoid talking to the other party’s insurance company, because you may make statements that hurt your ability to recover damages.