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Understanding “Comparative Fault” in Negligence Cases


Comparative fault–also called comparative negligence–is a legal doctrine that may reduce the amount an injured plaintiff is able to recover from a defendant in negligence cases.

If a plaintiff’s own negligence contributed to his or her injuries, the doctrine of comparative fault may reduce the plaintiff’s recovery in proportion to his or her own negligence. For example, if the plaintiff’s own negligence was 50% responsible for the damage or injury, the plaintiff’s recovery may be reduced by half.


California’s system of comparative fault replaced the former system of contributory negligence. Contributory negligence was an “all or nothing” system, under which a plaintiff whose negligence contributed in any way to his or her injuries was unable to recover from the defendant–even when the defendant was negligent.


Where the plaintiff was injured while trying to save another person, the rescue doctrine may apply. Under this doctrine, the plaintiff’s own negligence may not result in reduction of the plaintiff’s recovery, because the law sometimes “excuses” otherwise negligent conduct when it occurs in the course of trying to save another person from death or bodily harm. However, reckless acts are not covered by the rescue doctrine–rescuers who act rashly or recklessly may still find their recoveries limited by the doctrine of comparative fault.

The rescue doctrine exists because the law and public policy want to encourage people to help one another, and (in certain circumstances) to be willing to take certain risks in order to prevent harm to others. In emergency situations, rescuers who stop to evaluate whether or not the decision to save another is (or might be) negligent may waste precious minutes, thereby hampering rescue efforts and increasing the chance of harm or death to the original victim.


Disclaimer: THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY, AND DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE OR CREATE AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE AUTHOR AND ANY PERSON. Your rights and experiences may vary. Never use an online article (including this one) to evaluate your legal claims. Speak with an experienced lawyer promptly to obtain a personalized evaluation of your claims, possible damages, and options. You may lose or compromise your rights if you delay in consulting legal counsel. Negligence claims are complicated and fact-dependent. If you believe you have a claim against someone who injured you, a lawyer who represented you in a previous lawsuit, or any other type of legal claim, consult an experienced lawyer immediately for an evaluation of your personal rights and claims.

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