When several parties are responsible for your injury, joint and several liability comes into play. Learn what this means for your claim.
When most of us imagine a lawsuit, we see two parties. On one side, there is the plaintiff or claimant — the person who alleges that they were injured. On the other side is the defendant — the person who allegedly caused the injury. The jury hears the arguments and decides whether the defendant is responsible for the plaintiff’s injury, and then there is a judgment.
Reality is rarely as simple as what we imagine. Sometimes more than one defendant is responsible for an injury. For example, let’s say that you slip and fall in a grocery store. The factual cause of your slip and fall was a puddle of water left in the floor. Because that puddle had been left on the floor for two hours without being cleaned, the store is responsible.
But, consider this as well: The puddle of water was put there intentionally. A person with a rapidly growing YouTube channel put the water on the floor as a prank in an attempt to try and capture a funny video of someone falling.
Now, your injury has two causes: negligence by the store that left the water sitting for two hours and the intentional tort (wrongful act) of the person who put it there hoping to cause an accident.
In cases like this, some state laws provide for joint and several liability. This means that when you have two co-defendants (also known as “joint tortfeasors”), each is held completely liable for your injury. In other words, if you have $250,000 in damages from your fall, joint and several liability would allow you to recover that entire $250,000 from either the store or the YouTuber.
Joint and several liability is important for injury victims because it helps them get the full amount of their losses, even where one defendant is bankrupt or “judgment-proof.” It gives you more options for seeking all the money you’re owed, then lets the liable defendants fight it out among themselves about the exact amounts each owes.
This article will discuss the doctrine of joint and several liability and its application in modern personal injury law. We’ll also look at which states use joint and several liability and the different circumstances in which it is applied. Finally, we’ll also take a look at some injury cases that have used joint and several liability rules.
How Joint and Several Liability Works
Joint and several liability is legal doctrine designed to assist injured people in lawsuits by making it possible for them to recover the full amount of their damages from any party who is partially responsible for those damages.
Like contributory negligence and comparative negligence, an injury in a joint and several liability case will have several causes. For example, let’s say the brakes fail on your car and you have a crash. The injury from your head-on collision is made worse when the airbag fails to deploy.
In your resulting personal injury lawsuit, you sue the brake manufacturer and the airbag manufacturer with a product liability claim. You sue the car company for both product liability and negligence for putting together and selling the car with defective parts.
At trial, you and your lawyer prove that the brake manufacturer was 45% liable for your injury, the airbag manufacturer was 30% liable and the car company was 25% liable. You also prove that you have $1 million in damages.
Because you live in North Carolina (a state with a pure joint and several liability law), you can recover the total amount of your damages ($1 million) from any one of the three defendants, despite the fact that none of them are 100% liable.
After you prove your case, the defendants can then fight among themselves to determine who owed you what amounts, and they can settle the differences between themselves. This legal doctrine is known as contribution.
Two At-Fault Drivers Owe Injured Passenger $250,000
Wendy Acosta was a passenger in a car owned and operated by Altagracia Mejia when the car collided with a vehicle owned and operated by Xinna Lu.
Both Mejia and Lu were found to be negligent and liable for the injuries and pain and suffering sustained by Wendy Acosta. The jury awarded $250,000 to Acosta.
Mejia was determined to be 25 percent at fault and Lu 75 at fault, so their proportionate share of damages would be $62,500 from Mejia and $187,500 from Lu.
Under New York’s joint and several liability law, Acosta had:
“[A] right to recover against any joint tortfeasor in a separate or common action the total amount of [damages] suffered and not compensated.”
The New York Supreme Court upheld Acosta’s right to keep the $100,000 paid by Mejia’s insurance company, even though Mejia’s portion of fault for the accident was less.
When Lu’s insurance company offered $30,000 to Acosta, Mejia wanted it to cover the excess proportion of damages she already paid to Acosta. The court denied Mejia’s request, because Acosta had still not been paid the full $250,000 award.
Mejia is allowed to pursue contribution from Lu but not until the injury victim, Wendy Acosta, has been paid the full amount of compensation she deserves.
The point of this process is to make it easier for you to recover your damages. In a pure joint and several liability state, you are not limited to a specific portion of your damages from each defendant. The law then allows you to get your full amount of compensation while the defendants fight among themselves about how much each of them owes the party who paid for your damages.
State Laws for Joint and Several Liability
Because joint and several liability is determined by state law rather than federal law, its specifics will differ depending on where you live and where you were injured.
You should also keep in mind that joint and several liability arises from statutes, or written laws, and common law, or past court decisions. Generally speaking, there are three categories of joint and several liability laws.
1. “Pure” Joint and Several Liability States
These states apply joint and several liability in a similar way to the scenarios discussed above.
District of Columbia
2. States With Limited Joint and Several Liability
Unlike “pure” joint and several liability states, these states only allow the doctrine in certain cases. For instance, some only allow it where there is vicarious liability between the joint tortfeasors. (A common example would be where you are hurt by the employee of a company, then sue both the employee and employer.)
Other states may allow joint and several liability for economic losses, but not non-economic damages like pain and suffering. Medical malpractice cases are also treated differently by some states.
If you live in one of these states, it’s very important to speak with an attorney to determine whether your case falls into a category in which joint and several liability is permitted.
3. Non Joint and Several Liability States (also known as “Several Liability States”)
In several liability states, you can only recover the amount of damages for which a defendant is directly liable (i.e., their “proportionate share” of damages). If a tortfeasor is only 40% liable for your injury and your damages are $1 million, you can only recover $400,000 from that defendant.
Shared Blame Impacts Compensation
Given the variety of state laws and approaches to joint and several liability, every situation is unique.
The application of joint and several liability can be legally complicated, especially if any of the parties are trying to shift blame to you. Talk to a local attorney if an at-fault party or their insurance company is blaming you for your injuries.
Your Own Comparative Fault May Reduce the Co-Defendants’ Liability
If you share the blame in causing your own injury in a pure comparative fault state, even joint and several liability will be reduced by the amount of your fault.
For example, California law states:
“In any action for personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death, based upon principles of comparative fault, the liability of each defendant for non-economic damages shall be several only and shall not be joint. Each defendant shall be liable only for the amount of non-economic damages allocated to that defendant in direct proportion to that defendant’s percentage of fault, and a separate judgment shall be rendered against that defendant for that amount.”
Ten other states have a 50 percent modified comparative fault rule that says that so long as you are less than 50 percent to blame, you should be able to pursue compensation.
Settlements With Nonparty Tortfeasors Can Affect Your Judgment
Remember that out-of-court settlements can affect your court case. In Maryland, the Court of Appeals held that any settlement amount from one tortfeasor will reduce the share of the damages of non-settling tortfeasors against whom you later get a judgment.
Again, many other states may have their own versions of interpretations of this decision, so it’s important to think through the consequences of any proposed settlement.
Make the Law Work for You
Joint and several liability is a powerful tool for injured people to get the money they need to make them whole. It’s also a very complicated legal doctrine that can be used against you if you are not careful or sufficiently aware of legal pitfalls.
If you or a loved one has suffered a personal injury in a case with multiple responsible parties, take action today. Contact a qualified personal injury attorney or law firm for a free consultation and case evaluation.
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