Contributory Negligence

Contributory negligence is a rule of law that has been largely abolished in the U.S., as it deemed that a plaintiff who was even partially at fault for the incident, due to his own negligence, could not recover any damages from the defendant, who supposedly caused the incident. Contributory negligence refers to some amount of negligence on the part of the plaintiff, without which the incident would not have occurred. To explore this concept, consider the following contributory negligence definition.

Definition of Contributory Negligence


  1. Negligence on the part of the plaintiff to a civil lawsuit, which contributed to the incident or injury at hand.
  2. Negligence on the part of an injured plaintiff which, combined with the negligence of the defendant, caused the injury or damages.


1870-1875 American Common Law

What is Contributory Negligence

In the U.S., contributory negligence was historically a defense to a lawsuit claiming damages caused by negligence on the part of the defendant. Basically, this principle maintained that if a plaintiff, through some negligence of his own, contributed in any way to the harm he suffered, he may be denied compensation entirely. The principle of contributory negligence could be applied to a case by the court, whether or not it was claimed as a defense during the trial.

What is Comparative Negligence

In recent years, many juries have determined that the principle of contributory negligence led to unfair results, and have therefore ignored the rule. As a result, most states in the U.S. have abolished the contributory negligence defense, in favor of a comparative negligence test. Comparative negligence recognizes the fact that a plaintiff had some culpability in the incident, and assigns relative percentages of negligence by the parties in order to determine the amount of damages that should be awarded to the injured party.

For example:

Mary is driving down a country road at night, with one headlight out. Matthew, who is driving drunk toward her, crosses the center line and slams into Mary’s car, totaling her car, and causing her severe injuries. In a jurisdiction where contributory negligence is used, Mary’s small negligence in not ensuring her headlights were working properly may prohibit her from collecting damages from Matthew or his insurance company.

Alternatively, in a jurisdiction that applies the principle of comparative negligence, Mary may be assigned a percentage of culpability, and receive an award based on that amount. For instance, the judge assigns five percent negligence to Mary, and 95 percent to Matthew. When the judge rules in Mary’s favor in the amount of $100,000, should would receive only 95 percent of that amount, or $95,000.

Contributory Negligence and the Law

Contributory negligence is available as a defense to a civil lawsuit for negligence. This defense does not apply to any situation in which the defendant’s conduct amounts to malicious or intentional wrongdoing. In U.S. law, the burden of proof for contributory negligence sits squarely on the shoulders of the defendant to prove to the court that the plaintiff was also negligent, contributing to his own injury or damages.

In determining whether or not there is contributory negligence on the part of a plaintiff, the court uses the same standard of care as other types of negligence: did the plaintiff do everything that any other reasonable person would have done under the same or similar circumstances. Any act or failure to act on the part of the plaintiff that can be seen as a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s damages, amounts to contributory negligence. Any act which, while increasing or adding to the damages, did not cause the incident, is not usually considered contributory negligence for the purpose of precluding an award for damages.

For example:

Ella is on her way home from work when she is hit by a car, which ran a red light. Ella’s laptop and purse were on the passenger seat of her car at the time of the accident, and her laptop slammed into her head, causing a deep laceration and a concussion. Ella’s placement of the laptop on the front seat, without restraint, certainly added to the severity of her injuries, but it had nothing to do with the cause of the accident. In other words, the accident would not have been avoided had Ella placed her laptop in the trunk. Therefore, this situation is not considered contributory negligence.

Contributory Negligence in Lung Cancer Death

On May 6, 2002, Reginald Badger died of lung cancer at the age of 63. Reginald had worked for more than 30 years as a boiler maker at a dockyard, where he was exposed to asbestos dust and fibers. Following Reginald’s death, his wife filed a civil lawsuit against the dockyard, claiming negligence for not taking steps to protect its employees from the cancer-causing substance.

After Mrs. Badger was awarded more than $65,000 in general damages, and nearly $165,000 in special damages, the dockyard claimed a defense of contributory negligence. Making the point that Reginald had smoked about 20 cigarettes per day for many years, even though he knew, or should have known, that smoking causes, or contributes to, cancer, he was at least partially negligent. The dockyard claimed that Reginald should be assigned at least 25 percent contributory negligence.

The court took into consideration a great deal of evidence and testimony, including expert testimony, before reaching a decision as to contributory negligence. In the end, Reginald was deemed to be 20 percent at fault, and the court used the principle of comparative negligence, rather than contributory negligence, to reduce Mrs. Badger’s award by that amount.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Negligence – Failure to exercise a degree of care that would be taken by another reasonable person in the same circumstances.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Proximate Cause – An event sufficiently related to an injury to be considered the cause of that injury.