What is Pure Contributory Negligence? Examples and States

Learn why the insurance company can deny your injury claim in contributory negligence states, and how you can fight back.

The pure contributory negligence doctrine is an archaic rule of law in four states and the District of Columbia.

Sometimes called contributory fault, the rule is used to deny compensation to injury victims if they share so much as one percent of the blame for their injury.

Many legal experts argue that pure contributory negligence is an “all or nothing” approach to injury compensation that is unfair to victims.¹

It’s harder to win fair injury compensation in a pure contributory negligence state, but not impossible. This guide will help you understand what you’re up against and what you can do to protect your claim.

What is Pure Contributory Negligence?

Pure contributory negligence rules ban the plaintiff (injured party) from seeking compensation from a defendant (at-fault party) if the plaintiff in any way contributed to the circumstances leading to their injuries.

Insurance companies love pure contributory negligence rules for personal injury cases because it makes it so easy to deny claims, even when the victim is left dead or disabled.

The at-fault party’s insurance company may outright deny your claim if the adjuster thinks your own negligence contributed to your injury, no matter the degree of fault.

Your own insurance company may use the same reasoning to deny or minimize a claim under uninsured motorist coverage or a family umbrella policy.

States that apply the doctrine of Contributory Negligence:

Every state has different injury claim rules (tort laws) especially when it comes to negligence. Fortunately, most other states use a modified version of contributory negligence or comparative negligence rules.

Difference between Contributory and Comparative Negligence:

  • Contributory Negligence: Behavior that creates a risk to yourself is a form of negligence. If you contribute to the situation that caused your injury more than the other party, you may forfeit your right to compensation.
  • Comparative Negligence: In comparative negligence (or comparative fault) states, you can pursue compensation from the at-fault party even if you are partially to blame for the situation that caused your injuries. Your eligibility for compensation depends on your share of negligence compared to the other person’s negligence.

It helps to understand some legal terms used in injury claims:

Duty of Care means the obligation to be careful and avoid causing harm to others.

Negligence happens when a person or business fails to act responsibly or does something that creates a risk of harm to others. A coffee shop has a duty to clear ice from its front walk.

Liability means fault or responsibility. An at-fault driver is usually liable for injuries suffered in a car accident. There are several types of civil liability.

Proximate Cause is an action that leads to damages that would not have otherwise happened. For example, you would not have injuries if you weren’t hit by someone who ran a red light.

Examples of Contributory Negligence

Most kinds of injury claims in pure contributory negligence states are fair game for insurance companies and defense lawyers. Insurance companies will look for any reason to deny your claim and increase their profits.

The other party’s legal team will raise contributory negligence as an affirmative defense in a personal injury lawsuit.

Example: Wrongful Death Claim

Chad was a college student with a bright future. Back home in Alabama for the winter break, Chad went out for bowling and beers with three of his old buddies.

His friend Ron was driving home and took a curve too fast. Ron’s car left the roadway, slamming into a telephone pole. All four young men died in the crash.

The accident investigation revealed that at the time of the crash, Ron had a blood alcohol level just above the legal limit.

Chad’s family filed a wrongful death claim with Ron’s insurance company and an underinsured motorist claim with Chad’s auto insurance company.

The insurance claims were denied based on pure contributory negligence after Ron’s insurer determined that Chad got in the car knowing Ron was drinking. Essentially, the adjuster told the grieving family that Chad brought his death upon himself.

The family hired a skilled personal injury attorney to represent them and Chad’s estate. The attorney was able to gather evidence that Ron was the designated driver that evening, and that Chad was too intoxicated to gauge anyone else’s ability to drive.

Their attorney proved that Chad acted appropriately by traveling with a designated driver and could not have knowingly assumed any risk. The insurance companies were compelled to pay their full limits.

Example: Pedestrian Auto Accident

Carlos walked out of the Dupont Circle metro station on his way to work. He was too busy looking at his cell phone to pay attention to the crosswalk signals as he stepped off the curb at 19th Street.

Carlos walked into the path of a cab driven by Fred, who was unable to stop before hitting the distracted pedestrian. Carlos suffered a broken leg and a concussion.

Although Carlos filed an injury claim with the D.C. cab company’s insurer, his claim was denied based on pure contributory negligence. There were plenty of witnesses, in addition to traffic camera footage, to prove Carlos caused his own injuries when he failed to take reasonable care and obey the crosswalk signals.

4 Ways to Protect Your Right to Compensation

If you live in a pure contributory negligence jurisdiction, it’s a given that the insurance company will look hard for an excuse to say you share some blame for your injuries.

Protect yourself from the start by knowing what to do, and mistakes to avoid when someone else’s negligence has injured you. Here are four important tips:

  1. Call 911: Contact emergency services anytime you are suddenly injured, whether in a slip-and-fall, car accident, or other trauma. Not only will you need prompt medical attention, but you’ll have official documentation of the event. Never refuse medical care at the scene. Refusing or delaying treatment can ruin your claim.
  2. Watch What You Say: Don’t apologize for being “clumsy” after a fall or tell another driver you were distracted, or make any other admissions of fault after an injury. Anything you say will be used against you as evidence of contributory negligence.
  3. Hold Off: Don’t agree to give a recorded statement to an insurance adjuster until you talk to an attorney. Adjusters are trained to ask questions in a way that tricks you into admitting that you may have contributed to the accident.
  4. Get Expert Legal Advice: Most personal injury lawyers offer a free consultation to injury victims or their loved ones. Injury lawyers in contributory fault states know how to prove the defendant’s negligence while protecting you from allegations of shared blame.

Don’t let the insurance company have the last word. There’s no obligation, and it costs nothing to consult with a skilled personal injury attorney.

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>