What is Contributory Negligence?

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  • Written By: Charity Delich
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 February 2020
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Contributory negligence is a type of legal defense in which a party alleges that the injured party contributed to his or her own injuries. For instance, suppose that a truck driver hits a man riding a bike, and the man sues the truck driver for negligence. Assume also that the man was wearing dark clothing while riding the bike at night and that he was cycling along a busy highway not designed for bikers. The truck driver may be able to successfully argue that the biker contributed to his injuries, thereby exempting or reducing the driver’s liability.

In general, contributory negligence is a common law defense brought in order to refute a claim of negligence in a tort lawsuit. Different jurisdictions follow various rules when determining whether to award contributory negligence damages. In a jurisdiction that follows a pure contributory negligence approach, a person can only recover damages for injuries if he or she did not contribute to the accident at all. Under this approach, the biker in the truck accident scenario above would recover nothing because he contributed to the accident by wearing dark clothing and biking on a busy highway at night.


Most jurisdictions have modified the strict contributory negligence approach and follow a comparative negligence approach. Under this method, an injured person may recover damages even if he or she was partly to blame for the accident. The person’s damages would, however, be reduced, depending on the degree to which the person contributed to the accident.

Two types of comparative approaches are primarily used in determining liability for negligence claims: pure and modified. Under a pure comparative negligence system, the fact finder gives a percentage of fault to each negligent party. The damage award is then assigned based on the percentage. For example, suppose that a jury finds that the biker suffered $10,000 US Dollars (USD) in damages and that the biker was 70% at fault for the accident while the driver was 30% at fault for the accident. In that scenario, the driver would only pay 30% of the biker’s damages, or $3,000 USD.

A modified comparative negligence approach works similarly, with the fact finder assigning a fault percentage to each party and awarding the damages accordingly. There is a key difference, however. With a modified approach, once the injured party’s fault level exceeds a certain number, he or she can no longer receive any damages at all. Most jurisdictions that use this approach set this number at 50% or 51%. In the bike accident example above, under the modified approach, the biker would recover nothing because he was 70% at fault for the accident.


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