Contributory Negligence in North Carolina

In relationships, fault is a matter of perspective, but in the legal arena, fault determines degrees of liability and the right to fair compensation. In most states, comparative negligence rules apply. In North Carolina and only a few sister states, contributory negligence is the standard. While attempts have failed in the past, the state's lawmakers have drafted a bill to abandon this old standard.

Generally, contributory negligence is a common law rule that bars accident victims from receiving fair compensation for injuries or damages. While negligence relates to careless or inadvertent actions or inaction which cause harm or damage, contributory negligence is a concept that incorporates the "clean hands" philosophy. A person cannot benefit in any way from their own wrongful act and there is no distribution of fault.

Since 1953, North Carolina has recognized contributory negligence as an affirmative defense in automobile and other personal injury cases. Under the state's Motor Vehicle Safety and Financial Responsibility Act of 1953, financial responsibility for accident liability is defined and under the Apportionment of Torts Responsibility Act, contributory negligence is the fault standard, which limits recovery with any showing that a victim's actions contributed to their injuries. Together these two Acts limit any comparative consideration for liability and fault.

However, this year, General Assembly members are challenging the long-standing contributory negligence rule through H.B. 813. Presently, the draft amendment is being considered by the Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations.

While the contributory negligence standard is a difficult one to overcome, it is not absolute. In cases where an injured person can prove that the defendant in their case had the last clear chance to avoid the crash or accident and failed to do so, the presumption is also overcome. Also, where a plaintiff can show that the other party's actions, which caused their injury or damage, were willful and wanton, a contributory negligence defense can be defeated.

If successful, this draft amendment would place North Carolina in the majority of other states that offer some type of comparative negligence standard for those injured through the significant negligence of others. Many look at the change as a positive step to protecting the rights of injured people.