Why Percentages Matter in Automobile Accidents

Automobile accidents can involve anything from a single vehicle striking a pedestrian to a multi-car pileup on the highway. When people are injured in any accident, it often falls to the courts to determine who is responsible and who is entitled to compensation. Every state handles these questions differently.

In New York, the courts apply what is known as a “pure comparative negligence” rule to motor vehicle accidents. Briefly, this means a jury (or judge) must determine the relative fault of all the parties involved, including the plaintiff, and award damages accordingly. This means a plaintiff can be held partly responsible for the accident yet still recover damages. For example, let us say two cars collide, and the driver of one car sues the other for $10,000 in damages. A jury would then determine the relative fault of each driver. If the jury finds the plaintiff 30 percent liable, and the defendant 70 percent liable, the jury would award the plaintiff $7,000 in damages.

New York is one of about a dozen states that employ this pure comparative negligence system. The majority of states use a modified comparative negligence rule. This means the state establishes a threshold for the plaintiff's share of the liability. If he or she exceeds that threshold, no damages may be recovered. For example, if a car accident occurs in New Jersey, the person claiming damages must prove he or she was less than 51 percent at fault before recovering from the defendant. Most states establish their threshold at either 50 percent or 51 percent.

A handful of states, notably Maryland and Virginia, continue to use the old common-law rule of “contributory negligence.” This bars a plaintiff from recovering anything if he or she is even one percent at fault for the accident.

Comparative Negligence in Practice

In June of this year, the New York Court of Appeals addressed a case that illustrates how comparative negligence is applied. The case involved a bicyclist injured on a Manhattan street undergoing repair. A city construction supervisor told the bicyclist it was “okay to go through” the road. The bicyclist subsequently hit a pothole in the road and injured herself.

At trial before Manhattan Supreme Court, a jury determined the bicyclist was 40 percent responsible for the accident, while the City of New York was 60 percent liable. The jury found that, while the City was not negligent in failing to fix the pothole, it was liable due to the supervisor's decision to let the bicyclist ride through. (The trial judge later set aside the verdict for reasons unrelated to the comparative negligence question, which was the subject of the Court of Appeals' decision.)

Comparative negligence is a complicated issue that often requires a good deal of pre-trial discovery and fact-intensive examination by a trial court. That is why it is important to work with an experienced New York personal injury attorney in any litigation arising from an automobile accident. If you have any questions or concerns, contact our office immediately. Our main office is conveniently located in Hicksville, NY and we also have an office in Manhattan.