Comparative Fault: What Happens If You Contributed To Your Own Injuries?

In most personal injury lawsuits, a plaintiff will sue a defendant for a particular set of injuries that he or she has suffered. Sometimes the defendant will be the only person who can possibly be responsible for the injuries, such as when a defendant assaults the plaintiff.

In many cases, however, the accident will be more complicated, and potentially involve multiple different actors, or include the plaintiff making mistakes as well. For example, in a multi-car pileup, different drivers may be responsible for different aspects of the crash. Or a pedestrian who gets hit by a car may have been too busy texting on their phone rather than watching where they were going.

When these types of circumstances arise, determining who is at fault, and how much they are at fault, becomes much more complicated. Even if a plaintiff chooses to sue one particular defendant, that defendant may not be wholly responsible for the injuries that occurred and shouldn’t bear the burden of the entire cost of those injuries. In these situations, the doctrine of comparative fault is often applied.

Comparative Fault in Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Every state has their own rules for dealing with comparative fault. These rules address if comparative fault applies, how it applies, and how it impacts a plaintiff’s ultimate award.

In Iowa, comparative fault applies to any type of personal injury case, including automobile accidents, slip and fall accidents, car accidents, and any other circumstance where negligence might arise.

In these types of cases, the law requires that fault is apportioned between the plaintiff and defendant by the jury. The total amount of fault is, of course, capped at 100%. Based on the facts that are presented at trial, the jury must determine how much the defendant is at fault, and how much the plaintiff was at fault.

For example, say that a plaintiff and defendant are driving at night. The plaintiff forgets to turn on her headlights, making it hard to see their car. At an intersection, the defendant makes an illegal turn and hits plaintiff’s car, which is hard to see.

In this instance, the defendant is at fault for some part of the injuries because he hit plaintiff’s car while making an illegal turn. But the jury might also find that the plaintiff should also be held partially responsible because that driver forgot to turn on the headlights and made the car difficult to see. Thus, it’s possible that the defendant is determined to be 60 percent at fault, while the plaintiff is found to be 40 percent at fault.

These percentages are important because they affect the amount of damages that the plaintiff will receive. While a jury will calculate the total amount of damages that they believe the plaintiff is entitled to, the plaintiff can recover from the defendant only the percent of damages that are attributable to the defendant.

Taking the above example, this means that if the jury finds that the plaintiff had one million dollars in damages, the defendant can only be held liable, and forced to pay, 60 percent of those damages: $600,000. The remaining $400,000 in damage is the plaintiff’s own fault and they cannot force the defendant to pay that amount.

When Comparative Fault Precludes Any Recovery

The trickiest part of comparative fault is what happens when the plaintiff’s liability for the accident is equal to or greater than the defendants.  Some states still permit the plaintiff to recover for the defendant’s share of damages, even if defendant’s share is only five or ten percent.

Iowa law does not allow this. Instead, a plaintiff can only recover if he or she is 50% or less responsible for the accident. If the plaintiff is found to be 50% responsible, he or she can collect exactly half the damages that the jury awards. If the plaintiff is more than 50% responsible, even 50.1% responsible, he or she gets nothing. Iowa law prohibits a plaintiff from recovering if he or she is more responsible than the defendant for the injury.

This means that any plaintiff considering bringing a personal injury lawsuit must be very certain that he or she bears no more responsibility for the accident than the defendant. If the facts are complicated, or it seems that a jury might find that a defendant’s liability is limited, plaintiffs must proceed carefully as they run the risk of spending lots of money on attorneys fees to sue a defendant, and then being unable to recover from that defendant.

Comparative Fault and Settlement

Many plaintiffs wonder if comparative fault limits not only a plaintiff’s ability to recover in a lawsuit, but also the ability to recover during settlement negotiations. The answer is: not directly. If a plaintiff and defendant reach a settlement agreement, the plaintiff’s settlement award will not be reduced by any analysis of comparative fault. The plaintiff will get the entire amount that is agreed upon.

However, comparative fault can be raised as a negotiating tool during settlement negotiations by a defendant. Where a plaintiff is at least partially at fault for an accident, the defendant may raise the possibility of diminished or zero recovery at trial in order to encourage the plaintiff to take a lower settlement amount.

Iowa Attorneys Helping You Evaluate Your Likelihood of Recovery

Bringing a lawsuit always involves a careful calculation of risk versus reward. If a plaintiff is paying an attorney, he or she must consider the attorney’s fees and expenses that will have to be paid and weigh those costs against the likelihood of recovering a significant amount of money in the lawsuit. In a contingency case, a lawyer must weigh the chances of the plaintiff’s success against the time and expense to try the case. However, even in a contingency case, the plaintiff will still be responsible for the non-attorney expenses.

Where there is the possibility that the plaintiff is also partially responsible for an accident, this calculation must also involve a consideration of comparative fault, and the possible amount of fault apportioned to the plaintiff. Personal injury attorney Jonathan D. Schmidt frequently helps clients to evaluate these types of risks and rewards in determining whether to bring a case. For more information or to schedule an initial consultation, contact him online or at 319-774-6078.