Home / Blog / How Contributory Negligence Works in Alabama

Alabama, like other states, allows personal injury victims to seek compensation for their injuries. Where Alabama differs is the legal doctrine known as contributory negligence. Contributory negligence can prevent a plaintiff from being able to sue the defendant. All it takes is for the court to determine that the victim played a small part in causing his own injuries. Even if he is only 1 percent at fault, it can be a challenge for him to win a personal injury case.

If you have been injured due to someone else’s negligence, you need to call Norris Injury Lawyers today. We have over 40 years of experience handling complex contributory negligence cases in Birmingham, AL. Our client-centered approach means we can take care of all the legal heavy lifting while you get back on your feet. As our client, you will always be our priority.

Call us today at (800) 477-7510. We are available at your convenience 24/7. Our No Fee Guarantee® means you never have to pay a dime out of pocket for our legal services.

Contributory Negligence Defined

As a ruling philosophy, contributory negligence has nearly been nearly abolished in the US. It states that a plaintiff who is found to be responsible for an incident will not be able to seek compensation from the defendant. This is true even if the defendant is 99 percent at fault. Other states with similar laws may allow a percentage of damages awarded based upon the amount of fault determined by the court.

Contributory negligence can be claimed by the defense to prevent paying anything to the plaintiff. This does not work in cases that involve malicious, criminal, or intentional intent. Otherwise, the burden is on the defense team to prove they were not fully responsible for the incident.

Did the plaintiff make every effort any reasonable individual would under those same circumstances? If the court finds the plaintiff failed to act reasonably, it can be considered to be contributory negligence. It is an uphill battle for most plaintiffs in Alabama when the legal system appears to favor the defense.

The Four Elements of Winning Compensation

In Alabama, the plaintiff carries the burden of proving the other party was fully negligent. There are four elements to this.

These four elements include:

  1. Duty: Legally, we owe a duty of care in situations that could put others at risk. For example, drivers owe a duty of care when operating a motor vehicle. This duty means that vehicles must be driven safely and carefully while abiding by state and local traffic laws.
  2. Breach of Duty: The plaintiff would need to prove that the defendant breached his duty of care. For example, by not driving carefully, the defendant was distracted or driving recklessly, and this behavior put others at risk.
  3. Damages: The defendant’s breach of duty caused the incident to result in economic damages. For example, the defendant’s lack of care caused a crash. Due to the impact of the crash, the plaintiff suffered injuries and his vehicle was totaled.
  4. Causation: The link between the breach of duty and the cause of economic loss would need to be established. For example, the crash caused broken bones and whiplash. Nothing else could have caused the injuries.

Contributory negligence can be claimed if the plaintiff cannot prove that a breach of duty caused his losses. For example, if their own breach of duty contributed to part of the incident, the plaintiff will not be able to file a lawsuit for damages.

Exceptions to Contributory Negligence Laws

There are a few examples where contributory negligence does not apply. A person must be of legal age and mental capacity to be held negligent for his or her actions.

Here are a few exceptions to the contributory negligence law:

  • Children under the age of 7 are conclusively incapable of acting negligently; due to their lack of life experience and innocence, they cannot be held responsible under the law
  • Children under the age of 14 are presumed to be incapable of acting negligently for the same reason as above
  • People who are mentally challenged or deemed to be incompetent are also unable to be found negligent

What to Do If You Were Not Negligent

Many people assume that the other party is responsible after a car accident. This is especially true when injuries are involved. Even if you are completely sure you committed no negligent behavior, you should still hire a personal injury attorney. You cannot assert the other driver was at fault. You must still prove your case, which will require legal knowledge.

Contributory negligence laws tend to help the defense. In Alabama, it is more likely the defendant will challenge the claims of the plaintiff. All it will take is a tiny bit of evidence to show you were also negligent in some way. Experienced personal injury attorneys can use their considerable resources and expertise to defend your side of the story.

Should You Even Bother With a Lawsuit?

At this point, you may be thinking there is no point in making a compensation claim. The odds may be stacked against you, but you are not completely out of the game yet. The good news is that Alabama recognizes how harsh its contributory negligence laws are. In some instances, the jury has ignored the rule and awarded economic damages to injury victims.

Here are two scenarios in which you may be compensated:

  1. “Sudden Emergency” doctrine: You may be able to prove that you did act reasonably. You were facing an emergency that caused you to act in an appropriate manner. For example, you pulled out in front of a speeding vehicle with good reason. The defense will claim contributory negligence because you did not have the right of way, so it was partly your fault. Your defense, though, may be that you pulled out of your lane to prevent an accident. The car in front of you stopped suddenly, so you acted correctly to avoid causing a rear-end collision.
  2. “Last Clear Chance” doctrine: In other cases, your defense could be proving the other driver had plenty of time to avoid the accident. This puts the ball into his court. He had the final chance to avoid hitting you and did not take it. The driver had every opportunity to stop and failed to do so. His failure caused your injuries and put your life at risk.

Comparative Negligence vs. Contributory Negligence

Many states that previously used the contributory negligence doctrine determined it was unfair for injury victims. Plaintiffs can be denied compensation outright even if there was a slight contribution to the accident. Several states found this unfair and switched to a comparative negligence system. Alabama is the only state in the country that still uses contributory negligence.

The comparative negligence doctrine allows the court to make the final decision. It will determine how much fault should be distributed between the plaintiff and defendant, and each party will receive compensation based upon the level of negligence they contributed. If the plaintiff was 10 percent negligent, that number will be subtracted from what the defendant owes.

An Example of Contributory Negligence

This example will describe how contributory negligence can often be used as a defense tactic. Suppose a person has worked for a construction company for decades. During that time, he has been subjected to asbestos and other dangerous substances while performing his duties. The worker is later diagnosed with lung cancer and passes away.

The family, having lost a loved one and possibly their source of income, decides to sue the company. They claim the employer failed to provide the right safety equipment which ultimately led to the worker’s death. The company can claim contributory negligence based on the fact that the worker was a heavy smoker for most of his life. If smoking was found to have contributed to the worker’s lung cancer, it would reduce the company’s responsibility for his death.

Types of Lawsuits Where Contributory Negligence Can Be Claimed

The doctrine of contributory negligence can add complexity to several types of cases in Alabama. All it takes is a split-second decision to alter your life forever. The following are some types of lawsuits where contributory negligence can be used as a defense.

Wrongful death cases

According to the CDC’s 2020 Mortality Data Report, 200,955 unintentional injuries resulted in a person’s death in that year alone. With numbers like these, wrongful death is sadly the fourth-highest cause of death in the country.

Many of these unintentional injuries happen at work. Families of the deceased workers have the right to file a wrongful death suit. Companies, even when proven negligent, can use contributory negligence as a defense. For example, if an investigation found that the worker wasn’t wearing an approved hard hat or other safety equipment, the company could say that the worker contributed to his own death.

Vehicle accidents

Contributory negligence issues are often raised after a car, truck, or motorcycle accident. When two or more vehicles slam into each other, it is likely each driver contributed to the collision in some way.

For example, suppose a driver slows down to turn but does not use his blinker. The car behind him is speeding and ends up slamming into the back of the first car. Both drivers violated traffic laws and contributed to the accident. The second car was speeding, but the first car did not use the blinker. If the blinker was used, the accident might not have happened at all.

Dog bites

According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), there are over 4.5 million dog bites in the US each year. The bites themselves are bad enough, but there are often additional consequences that can turn severe.

  • Around 885,000 dog bite victims need reconstructive procedures
  • Up to 18 percent of dog bite victims develop infections
  • An estimated 59,000 people die from rabies each year, mostly attributed to bites from rabid dogs
  • About 10 to 20 people are killed by dogs yearly

It is estimated that as many as 94 percent of all animal bites are from dogs. Some people own aggressive breeds that are more likely to injure others.

Dogs may get loose and run across the yard or even bite a visitor in their home. If someone’s pet bites you and injures you in any way, you may be entitled to compensation.

There are also, however, defenses the pet’s owner can use. Contributory negligence may apply if the bite victim was trespassing. Or it could be claimed that the victim attempted to pet an aggressive and unfriendly dog without the owner’s permission.

Product liability

How a product is designed, manufactured, or advertised can be faulty. Most states have defective product laws enacted to keep people safe, so if you purchase a product and it causes you harm, you may be able to seek damages.

While states may claim to be strict about enforcing product liability laws, contributory negligence is one possible defense. The company can claim that the consumer grossly misused the product with full knowledge that the product could cause harm if used incorrectly.

Medical malpractice

According to one 2016 John Hopkins Medicine article, medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the US. This equates to around 250,000 patient deaths every year. Doctors can make mistakes that cause devastating and life-altering consequences. When this happens, a patient can sue for medical malpractice to recover damages.

Doctors can claim contributory negligence in Alabama if a patient is partly at fault for his injuries. If the patient is given specific instructions for treatment, those directions must be followed. For example, when you get a prescription, you may be instructed to avoid taking other medications. If you do not follow your doctor’s instructions and become injured as a result, you may not be able to sue for medical malpractice.

Call Norris Injury Lawyers Today

Alabama laws can be difficult to understand. You need a team of personal injury attorneys who are not intimidated by contributory negligence laws. That’s why you should come talk to Norris Injury Lawyers.

When we take on your case, we will do everything within our power to offer you the compassionate care you deserve. Our 40-plus years of service in the Birmingham, AL, area and throughout the state speaks for itself. Give us a call today for a free consultation on your case.

You can reach Norris Injury Lawyers at (800) 477-7510. We also have agents standing by via live chat 24/7.