Wednesday, April 15, 2015

In Auto Accidents, what is Comparative Fault?

At our law office, we as lawyers take the time to meet and talk with each client that calls or comes in with a question or problem. It has become a common question in automobile accidents for people to ask, what is comparative fault?” and “how does it affect me?” I will take this opportunity to provide a written explanation to this question.
In the case of McIntyre v. Balentine, 833 S.W.2d 52 (Tenn. 1992), our Tennessee Supreme Court made a change to the law regarding automobile and truck accidents in which the Plaintiff has some amount of fault in the accident that gives rise to his/her injury. By briefly outlining the facts of the McIntyre case, the changes in the law, and the resulting new law, become apparent.
In the McIntyre case, the Plaintiff exited Smith’s Truck Stop in Savannah, Tennessee, and entered the main highway. The Plaintiff had been drinking that night and had a blood alcohol content of 0.17 (the legal level for intoxication at that time was 0.10). Shortly after the Plaintiff exited the truck stop, he was struck from the behind by the Defendant. Based upon witness testimony, the Defendant appeared to have been speeding. The Plaintiff sued the Defendant. The Defendant alleged that Plaintiff should not recover anything because of all the ways in which the Plaintiff had contributed to his own injuries. After a trial, the jury found that the Plaintiff and the Defendant were equally at fault and therefore the jury did not grant the Plaintiff any damages.
In the opening sentence of the McIntyre Opinion, the Tennessee Supreme Court states, “we granted Plaintiff’s application for permission to appeal in order to decide whether to adopt a system of comparative fault in Tennessee….We now replace the common law defense of contributory negligence with a system of comparative fault.”
Our highest Court observed that, traditionally, there have been two (2) types of comparative fault: “pure” comparative fault; and “modified” comparative fault. Tennessee found it appropriate to adopt “modified” comparative fault.
So what is “modified” comparative fault? Under “modified” comparative fault, a Plaintiff may recover damages “so long as a plaintiff’s negligence remains less than the defendant’s negligence.” In such a case, “plaintiff’s damages are to be reduced in proportion to the percentage of the total negligence attributable to the plaintiff.” Trial judges are required to instruct the jury on the effect of a finding as to the percentage of negligence as between the Plaintiff and the Defendant and attorneys for each party are allowed to argue about how this instruction affects a Plaintiff’s ability to recover. In cases where a Plaintiff has sued multiple Defendants, a Plaintiff may recovered damages so long as its fault is less than the combined fault of all Defendants.
As to the practical side of how this would affect someone, consider the following. If a jury found that the Plaintiff was ten (10) percent at fault and awarded fifty thousand ($50,000.00) dollars of damages, the Plaintiff would receive only forty-five thousand ($45,000.00) dollars, as the total amount of damages would be reduced by the percentage of fault of the Plaintiff.
In the real world, insurance defense companies almost always want to claim that the Plaintiff is fifty percent (50%) at fault. This is the method which insurance companies use to heavy hand an injured party.
That is why it is important to have an experienced attorney to represent you. An attorney who will hold the powerful insurance companies accountable and demand the compensation you deserve.
If you have been involved in an automobile/truck accident, we would like an opportunity to help you with your case. Whether you hire us or not, we ask that you give us an opportunity to assess your case with you. Otherwise, you may very well sell yourself short.

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