Contributory Negligence in Alabama: A Guide

If you’ve been injured, you might have heard the phrase “contributory negligence.” But unless you are an attorney, you might not understand this term or what it means for your lawsuit. The following guide will explain Alabama’s contributory negligence laws and how contributory negligence in Alabama affects your ability to recover damages after an accident.

The First Step: Explaining Negligence

To begin, we must define a few important terms. People can injure others in a variety of ways. The law treats these injuries differently depending on the state of mind of the person who caused the injury. For example, assume Sally stops at a red light. While stopped, she sees her sworn enemy in the crosswalk. If Sally purposefully puts her foot on the gas with the goal of hitting and hurting her enemy, the court will say that Sally acted intentionally. Not only could Sally be sued, she could also face criminal charges.

Now, let’s change a few facts. Let’s assume this time that Sally is driving but is so busy texting that she is not paying attention to traffic signals. Because she is distracted, Sally doesn’t see the red light. Sally runs the red light and accidentally hits a person who is legally in the crosswalk. The law would say that Sally’s behavior was negligent.

The law sets standards of care that every person must follow. A negligent person fails to follow those standards. To return to Sally’s example, the law requires drivers to obey all traffic laws. One of those laws forbids texting while driving. Sally’s failure to obey that law shows that she ignored the required standard of care. The law would say that she was negligent.

What is Comparative Negligence?

Sometimes, more than one person can be the cause of an injury. For example, let’s assume that Sally – who was texting while driving – hit another driver, Dave. However, Dave might have avoided the accident if he weren’t also texting. In this case, both Sally and Dave failed to follow the legal standard of care. So, they were both negligent.

States handle cases like this in one of two ways. Most states apply a concept called “comparative negligence.” In a comparative negligence state, a court or a jury will look at the accident and decide which of the two people was most at fault. For example, if a jury found that the accident was 40 percent Sally’s fault and 60 percent Dave’s fault, in most states, Sally can recover damages while Dave cannot. However, Sally’s recovery might be reduced to reflect her part in causing her own injury.

What is Contributory Negligence?

Comparative negligence is only one way that courts resolve these issues. The other way is contributory negligence. In a contributory negligence state, the plaintiff – the person who files the lawsuit – cannot have been at all negligent.
Let’s go back to Sally and Dave. In a contributory negligence state, if Sally was 40 percent responsible for the accident and Dave was 60 percent responsible, Sally cannot recover even a single dollar. In fact, even if Sally were just one percent at fault and Dave was 99 percent responsible for the accident, Sally will not recover a dime even if she suffered significant damages.

Contributory Negligence in Alabama

It is important that Alabamans understand these rules because Alabama is a contributory negligence state. This means that in Alabama, if you are even one percent responsible for causing your injuries, you cannot recover. Even if you rack up thousands of dollars in medical bills, you cannot recover any money in a lawsuit if you are even slightly responsible for your injuries.
(Note: In Alabama, this rule only applies to persons over age 14, as courts have held that children younger than 14 cannot be contributorily negligent and those under 7 cannot be negligent at all.)

Fighting Contributory Negligence in Alabama

As you can see, contributory negligence is a strict and sometimes harsh rule. (In fact, only four other states and the District of Columbia follow this rule.) However, there are ways to argue that the rule should not apply in your case.

First, you might be able to convince the court or the jury that you were not negligent. While this approach is far from a guarantee, if it succeeds, you will still be able to recover damages. So, in Sally’s case, if Sally caused the accident but can prove that she was not texting, she might still recover.

Second, you can try to fit your case within the wanton behavior exception to the contributory negligence rule. In Alabama, a person behaves wantonly when they act with a conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others. In other words, they purposefully engage in highly risky behavior. So, returning to Sally’s case, even if Sally were texting, if she could prove that Dave caused the accident by driving drunk while speeding, Sally might still recover damages.

An experienced Alabama personal injury attorney can help you figure out the best way to handle contributory negligence arguments in your case.

Questions about Contributory Negligence?

If you have more questions about contributory negligence or other issues relating to Alabama personal injury law, contact April H. Collins at Collins Law LLC. Attorney Collins can answer your legal questions during a free consultation. Call today to get help protecting your rights.