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Understanding the Different Fault Theories in Personal Injury Cases

Posted by Russell West | Jul 19, 2015 | 0 Comments

Issues of fault are at the crux of any personal injury claim. Whether it be medical malpractice, a slip and fall, or a car accident, the court will focus on determining fault as it relates to the claim presented before determining damages. In determining fault and whether a party is entitled to any compensation, courts apply one of three major fault theories. Each of these theories will have a different result upon application. Understanding the different theories of fault may be helpful in moving forward with your legal action.

Pure Contributory Fault

This theory is commonly regarded as the harshest of the three theories. States that apply this theory begin their analysis by dividing fault between the parties, allotting a percentage to each party. If it is determined that the party suing for relief is responsible in any way for their injury, they are barred from recovery.

For example, let us pretend that a car runs into a person in the middle of an intersection. The person in the intersection was jaywalking, but the driver was speeding and ran a light. In a state that applies the pure contributory fault theory, if the jaywalking of the victim contributed 1% towards his damages, and the fault of the driver was 99%, the injured party would still be unable to recover.

Modified Comparative Fault

Similar to pure contributory fault states, the first step in applying a comparative fault analysis is to divide the fault between the parties involved. From that point, the court will consider fault in one of two ways.

Under one view (50% rule), the court will only allow the plaintiff to recover if he is found to be 49% or less responsible for his injuries or damages. If the plaintiff is found to be 49% or less responsible for his injuries, the court will reduce his award by his percentage of fault.

Therefore, if a plaintiff is found to be 48% responsible for his injuries and his damages are found to amount to $1,000.00, the court would award him $520.00; $1000.00 (total damages) - $480.00 (48% of $1,000.00) = $520.00.

If the plaintiff were found to be 50% responsible for his damages, however, he would be barred from any recovery.

The second analysis (the 51% rule) will allow the plaintiff to recover so long as he is found to be less than 51% responsible for his damages. If the plaintiff is found to be 50% or less responsible for his injuries, the court will award him his damages, minus the amount that he was responsible. So, if a plaintiff in a state applying this theory was found to be 50% responsible for an accident resulting in $1000.00 in damages, the court would award him $500.00; $1,000.00 (damages) - $500.00 (50% of fault) = $500.00.

If the plaintiff in the above example were found to be 51% responsible for his damages, he would be barred from recovering any damages.

Pure Comparative Fault

In direct contrast to the pure contributory fault theory states, states that apply the pure comparative theory of fault are seen as favoring the victim in accidents. In applying the pure comparative model of fault, courts determine the percentage of blame for each party. From there, the plaintiff is awarded the amount of their full damages, minus the amount of their contribution. So, in applying the same example from above, let us say instead that the victim was found to be 90% at fault and the driver only 10% at fault. If the victim's damages were found to amount to $10,000.00, because they were 90% responsible for their damages, their award would be reduced by 90%, resulting in an award of $1,000.00.

On balance, this is definitely the most lenient to the victim. Where the victim of an injury in a state that applies either of the other two models faces the possibility of not receiving any damages, plaintiffs in pure comparative fault states are guaranteed something, so long as they can prove some level of fault on the part of the defendant.

Washington State applies this model of fault analysis.

Final Thoughts on Understanding Fault

Proving some level of fault is the foundation of most personal injury cases. It is important to consider that fault can be a lot more complicated than it might appear to be at first glance. Just because you are sure that you are innocent of any wrongdoing, it does not mean that the court will share your opinion. The court will consider entirely different factors from what you might expect when thinking about fault in the conventional sense.

Russel West, a Spokane Washington personal injury lawyer, has years of experience in representing his clients across a number of different personal injury issues. He has experience in everything from personal injury, to criminal and family law issues. If you think you might be in need of an attorney, consider reaching out to the West Law Office for a free consultation. In seeking the justice you are entitled to, you deserve zealous and dedicated representation. Let the team at the West Law Office provide you with just that and secure you the results to which you are entitled.

About the Author

Russell West

Russell West from West Law Office, located in Spokane, Washington represents clients in areas of criminal traffic, misdemeanors, and personal injury. DUI’s, Reckless Driving, Negligent driving, Hit and Run, and Driving with Suspended license are the majority of criminal traffic violations. Drug Charges, Theft, and Domestic Violence account for most of the other criminal cases Russell handles.


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West Law Office - Russell West Attorney

Spokane Attorney Russell West practice areas include: Auto Accidents, Personal Injury, Motorcycle Accidents, Slip and Falls, DUIs, DOL Hearings, Criminal Traffic, Expungement/Vacating Records, and Insurance Bad Faith

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