How Pure Contributory Negligence Can Kill Your Injury Claim

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

Pure contributory negligence is the 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.

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.

Beware of Pure Contributory Negligence

The jurisdictions that still apply Pure Contributory Negligence rules are:

  • Alabama
  • Maryland
  • North Carolina
  • Virginia
  • Washington, D.C.

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

If your injuries are from a car accident and you live in a no-fault auto insurance state, your medical expenses and related costs will be covered by your Med-pay or Personal Injury Protection (PIP) coverage, no matter who was at fault. 

Fortunately, most other states use some version of comparative negligence rules. Here’s the difference:

Contributory Negligence: Behavior that creates a risk to yourself is a form of negligence. If you contribute to the situation that caused your injury, you may forfeit your right to compensation from the other at-fault party.

Comparative Negligence: In comparative negligence 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.

Liability means fault or responsibility. The at-fault driver is usually liable for injuries you suffered in a car accident.

Direct and Proximate Cause is an action that leads to damages which wouldn’t have otherwise happened. For example, you wouldn’t 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.

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 Car Accident

Carlos walked out of the Dupont Circle metro station on his way to work and 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 obey the crosswalk signals.

How 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 high and low 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.

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.

Police crash reports are especially compelling evidence of fault that can support your claim.

Never refuse medical care at the scene. Refusing or delaying treatment can ruin your claim. The insurance company will jump at the chance to say you contributed to the severity of your injuries.

Watch What You Say: Don’t apologize for being “clumsy” after a fall or don’t 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.

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 making admissions that you contributed to the accident.

If you’re injured in a car accident, read these Mistakes to Avoid When Negotiating with the Insurance Company.

Get Expert Advice: In a pure contributory negligence state, you have too much to lose by facing the insurance company on your own. No matter how badly you’re injured, the adjuster will work hard to make sure you don’t get a dime.

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 >>