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What Is Contributory Negligence in Alabama Law?

Posted on February 17, 2016


If I was partially at fault, can I still recover for my personal injury claim?

Alabama law allows victims of negligence to sue for compensation for their injuries. However, in a personal injury claim, the legal doctrine of contributory negligence prevents the victim from recovering if they were also at fault for their injuries. Alabama is currently the only state that completely prevents a recovery if the Plaintiff is partially at fault. Most states have a modified form of contributory negligence that allows a recovery so long as the Plaintiff’s proportion of fault is less than the Defendant.

To understand how this works, we will use a real-world example of an automobile accident. Assume that driver A is traveling down a highway. Driver B is stopped at an intersection with a stop sign. Driver B sees Driver A but pulls out in his lane going the same direction. Driver B, who is traveling 15 miles over the speed limit, tries to stop, but collides with A. Normally, Driver B would be at fault for failing to yield to B. But, under the doctrine of contributory negligence, Driver A would be denied recovery by most juries for exceeding the posted speed limit. Stated differently, Driver A’s own negligence contributed to the accident.

Other states have adopted less harsh approaches that are called “comparative negligence”. As the name suggests, in these states the injured party can still recover for his injuries, even if he is partially at fault for the accident. In these same states, the Plaintiff is allowed to recover so long as his negligence is less than 50% of the total negligence.

A handful of states have adopted “pure” comparative negligence. In pure comparative states, personal injury juries are allowed to award money to a Plaintiff even if his fault is 99% of the total fault assessed between the parties! However, the jury award is reduced by the amount of fault assigned to the Plaintiff. So, in a pure comparative negligence state, if an injured Plaintiff’s case is worth $100,000 but the jury decides his proportion of negligence is 40%, he would only receive $60,000. In Alabama, the same Plaintiff would get nothing.

There are some exceptions to the harshness of the above. For example, children under the age of 14 are presumed not to be capable of being contributorily negligent. Further, children under 7 are conclusively deemed incapable of acting negligently due to their innocence and limited life experience. Finally, people who are incompetent or mentally challenged are also considered incapable of committing negligence.

Efforts by lobbyists and others have been ineffective in changing Alabama’s personal injury law to do away with the contributory negligence defense and replace it with a modified form. As of 2019, Alabama is the only remaining state that applies the harshest form of this legal doctrine.

Contact our Birmingham car accident lawyers today.