Massachusetts personal injury lawyer James M. Lynch discusses how comparative negligence often affects damages in Massachusetts auto accident cases.
Earlier this month, we reviewed what factors auto insurers consider when evaluating personal injury claims. Today, we will be taking a look at another common issue in auto accident cases: comparative negligence. Prior to 1971, a plaintiff’s contributory negligence in the occurrence of an accident would act as a complete bar to his/her recovery of damages. Even if a plaintiff in a personal injury case was found to be just 1 percent responsible for the occurrence of an accident, that minuscule amount of fault would end the case in favor of a defendant who was 99% responsible. Judges could not tell juries in their instructions what the impact of a contributory negligence finding would have on the outcome and even cases where the injuries were catastrophic would end in defense verdicts because of the attribution of a small amount of negligence to the injured party would result in a total victory for the defense.
Under mounting pressure from consumer groups and trial lawyers, the Massachusetts Legislature finally came to understand the injustice of the contributory negligence standard and enacted the Massachusetts Comparative Negligence Act on January 1. 1971. The Act abolished contributory negligence as a bar to recovery by injured plaintiffs. The Legislature amended the Act in 1974 (the “1974 Act”) to permit recoveries by plaintiffs whose negligence does not exceed 50% of the combined 100% negligence of all parties involved, keeping in mind that the combined negligence of all the parties in every case equals 100%. So, for example, if a plaintiff and one defendant are equally (50%-50%) at fault, the plaintiff recovers.
Having said all of the above, in any case where a negligent plaintiff is permitted a recovery – i.e., where his/her negligence is 50% or less, the 1974 Act penalizes that plaintiff’s recovery in proportion his/her share of the total (100%) negligence pie. Take the following example: let’s say that a jury finds the plaintiff 20% at fault and the defendant bears 80% of the fault and that as a direct result, the plaintiff’s medical bills and other damages amounted to $10,000. In that case, the plaintiff’s recovery will be reduced by his or her 20% share of the negligence; accordingly, the plaintiff will recover $8,000 of his or her damages. In a 50% plaintiff-50% defendant negligence split with the same $10,000 damages finding, the plaintiff’s recovery would be $5,000. If a jury were to find the plaintiff 51% or more at fault, that plaintiff would recover nothing.
The Comparative Negligence Act also influences how insurers evaluate their monetary exposure to claimants in cases that settle out of court. Insurers are always looking for evidence of fault in which they can knock down the settlement value of cases. This is particularly true in auto accident cases and it is a good reason why injured accident victims should involve an experience attorney as early as possible after an accident.
About the Author: James M. Lynch is a Massachusetts personal injury lawyer for Lynch & Owens, located in Hingham, Massachusetts.