What Does "Comparative Negligence" Mean When Determining Who Is Liable for a Traffic Accident?

“Comparative negligence” is the legal term for assigning degrees of fault to each person involved in a traffic accident. If you decide to pursue a personal injury claim after a car accident, comparative negligence will likely come into play.

New Jersey’s “modified comparative negligence” system is laid out in NJSA 2A:15-5.2 Under New Jersey’s system, as a plaintiff, you are not required to prove that the other driver was completely at fault in order to recover damages. Rather, you are only required to prove that the other driver was more than 50 percent at fault.

New Jersey law dictates that, in order to determine liability and damages, the trier of fact should determine the following:

  • The amount of damages recoverable by the injured party (regardless of negligence of fault)
  • The extent of each party’s negligence or fault (in the form of a percentage)

Comparative negligence works by reducing the overall damage award by the percentage of negligence. For example, say you have one brake light out on your car. Another car, which is going well over the speed limit, fails to stop in time and rear-ends you while you are stopped at a stoplight. The accident results in $200,000 worth of medical bills and vehicle damage. The court may decide you are 10 percent at fault for not having functioning brake lights, but the other driver was 90 percent at fault for failing to stop in time and avoid a collision. The amount you are eligible to win in a personal injury case will decrease by 10 percent from $200,000 to $180,000.

Comparative negligence usually applies when a personal injury case makes it to trial, which is rather rare. However, it is still applicable for an insurance adjuster or competing attorney, who can use the principle of comparative negligence to argue for reduced damages out of court.

The comparative negligence system has replaced the more restrictive “contributory negligence” system in most jurisdictions. Under a contributory negligence system, if a plaintiff was found to be at fault in any way in the incident, he or she could not recover damages. Comparative negligence allows for the fault to be shared, but still holds negligent persons accountable for their conduct.

Certain states, like New York, operate under a “pure comparative negligence” system. In these states, a plaintiff can still recover damages if his or her share of the fault exceeds 50 percent. Therefore, even if the defendant was only 10 percent at fault in the accident, the plaintiff can sue and recover damages.

Just like New Jersey’s comparative negligence system, the New York system reduces damages by the percentage of fault. For example, if a $100,000 accident was 60 percent the plaintiff’s fault and 40 percent the defendant’s fault, the plaintiff is eligible to recover $40,000 instead of the full $100,000.