"Contributory negligence" refers to the harsh legal doctrine in which the injured party is barred from recovery if he is found to be guilty of negligence, no matter how slight (as slight as 1% negligent). If the other party involved in your accident is 99% responsible and you are 1% responsible, legally, you cannot recover a single penny, regardless of how serious your injuries are, when the rule of contributory negligence applies.
Most states have shifted from contributory negligence to comparative negligence, the doctrine in which the injured party can recover damages that are reduced by the amount of his own negligence. However, the doctrine of contributory negligence is still the law of the land in the District of Columbia, Virginia, Maryland, Alabama, and North Carolina. If you ride, drive, or walk in one of these jurisdictions, you need to be keenly aware of the doctrine of contributory negligence.
An important aspect of this law is that the negligent act assigned to the cyclist must have actually contributed to the cause of the accident. For example, I represented a cyclist who was broadsided by an SUV emerging from a parking lot. The accident happened after dark, and my client was riding without bike lights, which are required by Virginia law. Due to this fact, many lawyers told my client that his case was a loser before he found me. But they were wrong.
Why? Upon investigation, we determined that he was struck immediately adjacent to a used car lot that was well lit with mercury vapor lights. The area was as bright as a major league ballpark, and the cyclist was plainly visible to the driver, regardless of whether or not he was riding with lights. The cyclist may have been negligent, but his failure to use lights did not contribute to the cause of this accident. Using clear nighttime photos of the scene, we were able to prove this case and secure a healthy settlement for this young man.
Does the doctrine of contributory negligence sound harsh and unreasonable? It is. But, unfortunately, it is still the law in DC, Maryland, Virginia, Alabama, and North Carolina. If you're involved in an accident, be cautious of what you say to insurance adjusters and the other party's lawyers. And if you have any questions about contributory negligence or how it may pertain to an accident in which you've been involved, please contact me today for a free consultation.