It is Time to Change DC’s Contributory Negligence Law

Man on pedestrian crossing in autumn, in danger of being hit by car

District of Columbia tort law is governed by the legal doctrine of contributory negligence. Under comparative negligence, a plaintiff can be completely barred from recovering damages if the plaintiff was 1% at fault for causing his or her own injuries. Contributory negligence leads to unfair results, and it is time to change DC’s contributory negligence law.

Only four states (Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and Alabama) and the District of Columbia still follow the outdated doctrine of “contributory negligence.”

Comparative negligence can deny judgment to an an injured party if that party contributed even slightly to the accident.

Contributory v. comparative negligence

The archaic and unfair rule of contributory negligence has been replaced by much fairer doctrine of “comparative negligence” in all other 44 states. Under comparative negligence, the negligence of the litigants are balanced and weighed. Comparative negligence determines percentages of blame between the plaintiff and defendant. Litigated cases are rarely solely the fault of a single individual. Comparative negligence recognizes that fact.

Pedestrians and bicyclists in Washington may be getting some relief from the harsh doctrine of contributory negligence. On April 21, 2016, a proposal to change the District’s long-standing contributory negligence law passed the D.C. Council’s judiciary committee by a 3-0 vote. The bill, the Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Act, took more than a year for legislators to reach a compromise suitable to both supporters and opponents, including the insurance industry and trial attorneys.

The superiority of comparative negligence

Contributory negligence is not an economically efficient or fair method for determining compensation after crashes. It does not compensate injured parties who were not primarily responsible for their injuries. It allows the insurers of the primarily negligent party to avoid compensating the injured. Forty-five states — and the federal court system — have adopted comparative negligence as a basis for apportioning fault between parties in tort suits. It is time to align DC’s tort law with the rest of the country and change its contributory negligence law.

About Brian V. Lee 566 Articles
Brian V. Lee provides bankruptcy, foreclosure defense, business turnaround, and litigation services to clients in the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland. Brian was the Washington, D.C. state chair of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys from 2016 to 2018.

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