If I am partly at fault, will that affect my car accident settlement amount?

Question

If I am partly at fault for a car accident, will that have a big effect on the amount of money I can get in a settlement?

Answer

Yes. If fault is anything other than a proverbial “open and shut” case when it comes to your car accident, you can bet that the other side (the other driver, their car insurance company, and/or their attorney) will do everything they can to point the finger at you. And if it turns out that you do share some of the fault for causing the car accident, it will most likely affect how much you end up receiving -- definitely at trial, and most likely even at settlement.

Every state follows one of two shared fault rules in personal injury cases where more than one party is to blame for the underlying accident: one rule is called comparative negligence, and the other is called contributory negligence.

Comparative negligence reduces a personal injury plaintiff’s compensation (damages) when he or she bears some level of fault for the car accident. The total damages are reduced according to the percentage of the plaintiff’s fault. So, if the plaintiff is deemed 25 percent to blame for a car accident in which she suffered $10,000 in damages, the defendant will only be on the hook for $7,500 ($10,000 minus 25 percent). States that follow comparative fault rules do so under either a “pure” or “modified” variation. Learn more about the difference in Comparative and Contributory Negligence in Car Accident Cases.)

Contributory negligence bars a plaintiff from recovering anything at all if he or she bears any amount of blame for the car accident. This is a harsh rule, and it’s only followed in a handful of states (

(Check out the Car Accident Laws in Your State.)

So, those are the rules, and if your case makes it all the way to a civil court trial, the judge and the jury are legally obligated to apply these rules. For example, in a pure comparative negligence state, the jury must assign a certain percentage of fault to each party, and must also make a determination of the total amount of the plaintiff’s damages. Then, the fault percentage is applied to the damages, and the result is the total damages that will be awarded to the plaintiff.

Even during car accident settlement talks prior to trial, you can expect the insurance adjusters on both sides to have the state’s shared fault rules in mind, and those rules will affect any settlement numbers that are tossed back and forth during negotiations.

And if you happen to be negotiating settlement in a contributory negligence state, you can expect the insurance adjuster for the other side to take a pretty hard line if it looks like you might share part of the blame for the accident. That’s because the adjuster knows that if your case makes it to court and you’re found to bear even minimal responsibility (remember that one percent will do in a contributory negligence state), you’ll wind up with nothing.

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