In many car accident cases in New York, fault or responsibility might seem obvious. For example, one driver might run a red light and crash into a vehicle traveling through a green light. Or, for instance, a driver might be looking down at a smartphone to read a text when that driver rear-ends another vehicle and causes injuries. However, there are numerous car crash cases in which the question of fault or negligence is not always so objective. According to the New York Department of Health, there are an average of almost 1,100 fatalities in the state each year caused by motor vehicle collisions, more than 12,000 hospitalizations, and nearly 137,000 emergency department visits. Many of those injured parties will file claims for compensation, and in some cases, the defendant will argue that the plaintiff is partially to blame.
What happens if a defendant alleges that the plaintiff is partially to blame for his or her own injuries? This question raises the issue of contributory negligence. We want to discuss the effects of contributory negligence in a car accident claim and how it can impact a plaintiff’s economic recovery.
Contributory Negligence Under New York Law
Under New York law, contributory negligence is defined as “culpable conduct attributable to the claimant or decedent.” The law makes clear that, in situations where a plaintiff is partially to blame for her own injuries, she is not barred from recovery. That is, the plaintiff can still obtain damages from the defendant.
However, as the statute says, the plaintiff’s damages award “shall be diminished in the proportion which the culpable conduct attributable to the claimant or decedent bears to the culpable conduct which caused the damages.” What that language means is this: the plaintiff’s damages award will be reduced by her own percentage or proportion of fault.
Examples of the Effects of Contributory Negligence
New York model jury instructions for negligence make clear that negligent behavior is defined as one of the following:
- “doing an act that a reasonably prudent person would not have done under the same circumstances”; or
- “failing to do an act that a reasonably prudent person would have done under the same circumstances.”
Imagine that Joe is injured in a car accident. Joe was traveling at a speed of 10 miles per hour beyond the posted limit, but the accident largely happened because Moe was extremely impaired by alcohol and crossed over a median, causing a head-on, wrong-way accident with Joe’s car. Both Joe and Moe survived the crash, but Joe suffered life-threatening injuries and required multiple surgeries. Joe needs to continuing visiting a doctor for follow-up treatment, and he is unable to work due to his injuries. He files a claim against Moe and seeks compensatory damages in the amount of $500,000.
Moe argues that Joe should take some of the blame because he was speeding. The jury awards $500,000 in damages but determines that Joe is 10 percent negligent. Accordingly, Joe’s award is reduced by 10 percent, or $50,000. As such, he recovers a total of $450,000. This works the same way whether a plaintiff is 1 percent or 99 percent negligent in New York.