Comparative Negligence in Car Accidents: Understanding Your State’s Laws

Car Accidents

In the U.S., determining fault in a car accident (or any mishap that results in harm) is done in one of two ways. The first is contributory negligence, a tort rule that denies a plaintiff’s claim for just compensation if they were found to have contributed to the accident to some extent. This applies even if the victim is only 1% responsible.

However, it’s for this reason that most state judiciaries have switched to the second: comparative negligence. This guide will go through the basics of this rule, the various states that have adopted it, and how it’s more beneficial to victims.

Comparing fault

Unlike its counterpart, comparative negligence instead adjusts the compensation the plaintiff can receive based on their contributory role in the accident. If the court discovered that they were 25% at fault, it would decree that they could only receive 75% of the damages they would’ve gotten if they were completely faultless.

As of this writing, all but four states and Washington, D.C., have adopted comparative negligence. However, they later found a major flaw: a victim found to be 51% liable would still be eligible to receive 49% of the damages from the defendant. Not to mention, a “victim” who’s more at fault than the one who caused the accident barely makes sense.

In light of this, most comparative negligence states modified the rule to combine some aspects of contributory negligence. This is the bar rule, which is set to either 50% or 51%. People seeking damages would be denied if their fault reached or exceeded this limit.

As courts assign fault levels to involved parties, making a strong case is key in keeping liability to a minimum, if not zero. Having all the details and arguing with defiance alone won’t suffice. Extensive knowledge of statutes should supplement such arguments, something that one can find in a car accident lawyer in Johns Creek GA or other places.

Comparative negligence by the state

The following states use the 50% bar rule (compensation possible at 49% or below):

  • Arkansas
  • Colorado
  • Delaware
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Maine
  • Nebraska
  • North Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Utah

Meanwhile, the 51% bar rule (compensation possible at 50% or below) states include:

  • Connecticut
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Vermont
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

That leaves states that employ pure comparative negligence, which are:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Florida
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Rhode Island
  • Washington

While the District of Columbia adopted comparative negligence in 2016, it only applies to non-motorized vehicles like bicycles, skateboards, and kick scooters. Accidents involving motorized vehicles still default to contributory negligence.

Additionally, notice that South Dakota isn’t on any of these lists. This is because it’s the only state to use a unique modification of comparative negligence called “slight/gross negligence.” In this case, the state’s judiciary gauges the parties’ faults by two values—slight and gross—instead of percentage figures. Other than that, standard comparative negligence applies.

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Benefits and drawbacks

The primary advantage of comparative negligence is that it assures the victim of compensation regardless of their role in the mishap. There’s no need to explain how harmful, if not deadly, auto accidents can be, let alone how costly the treatment for head trauma or broken limbs is.

Damages also reflect other forms of income loss, such as missed work due to injury and damage to property. Depending on the accident’s severity, the defendant’s insurance policy may not be enough to cover the costs. Personal injury protection is mandatory for motorists in most states, but most policies only cover up to USD$10,000; average settlements can be double or triple that.

However, insurance can also limit the final amount awarded to a victim. While they can pursue additional damages if the defendant’s policy doesn’t cover the excess, a victory won’t essentially mean the plaintiff will get it. Sometimes, the former doesn’t have enough assets to pay what they owe, even after liquidation or garnishing wages.

The bar rule is also disadvantageous when both parties are equally at fault. Suppose such a case happens in a 50% bar rule state like Georgia. A victim may leave the courtroom empty-handed, no matter the seriousness of their injuries or the damage to their vehicle or property. This is more likely if they’re found to have violated traffic laws before the accident.

Proving a defendant’s liability

Negligence tort places both parties at fault for causing a vehicular crash or collision. It all boils down to which of them contributed more to the incident. The plaintiff’s goal is to know whether or not the defendant would act reasonably in a similar instance. In legal parlance, this is known as fulfilling the burden of proof.

Civil cases like personal injury don’t have as high a standard of burden of proof as criminal ones but must satisfy it, nonetheless. There are five elements to consider.

  • Presence of duty of care

Most lawyers agree that driving is more of a privilege than a right. That said, it comes with a slew of responsibilities, not least of which is ensuring the welfare of everyone around them while at the wheel. An accident supports the fact that someone failed to exercise such a duty.

  • Breach of duty of care

One way judges assess if there’s been a breach of duty of care is with the Hand formula. This calculation is based on three factors: the burden of precautions, the probability of harm, and the extent of the damage. If the last two outweigh the first, a breach exists.

  • Physical harm

Most courts only accept evidence of bodily harm or damage to personal property. However, some also recognize emotional distress, which can either be physical or mental in nature. It pays to ask a lawyer about how state laws handle this.

  • Proximate cause

The cause of the victim’s physical injury or damage to property must be directly related to the accident in question. As straightforward as it sounds, legal experts say this is one of the hardest to prove, as not all occurrences can qualify as proximate causes.

  • Cause-in-fact

This element is the polar opposite of proximate cause and can’t get any simpler. In a way, it begs the question: “Would the plaintiff have been injured if not for the defendant’s actions?”

Naturally, there are some ways the opposing party can attempt to dispute the claim. They might argue that the plaintiff had ample opportunities to prevent the accident from happening or had been careless, if not more. All the more reason to have a legal team helping out.


Comparative negligence is the dominant approach in settling personal injury disputes, including vehicular crashes and collisions. Different states have their respective ways of weighing the liabilities of each party, so it should be in your best interest to learn your state’s laws and statutes.

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