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Comparative Negligence in Massachusetts

It is not unusual for the defendant in a car crash case to claim that the injured plaintiff was careless and bears some or all of the responsibility for the accident. Under Massachusetts law, the defendant has the burden of proving this contributory negligence, just as the plaintiff has the burden of proving the defendant’s negligence. But what impact does contributory negligence have on a case?

State laws vary throughout the country. In a small handful of states, the slightest bit of contributory negligence bars a plaintiff from any recovery for damages. But most states use a comparative negligence rule that apportions fault and reduces a plaintiff’s recovery accordingly. In Massachusetts, the comparative negligence law allows a plaintiff who was partially at fault to sue as long as he was not mostly at fault. A defendant can introduce evidence that the plaintiff broke the law, but a violation of the law is not by itself proof of negligent behavior that caused an accident. Here’s how it works:

Total fault for the accident is set at 100 percent. The court hears evidence of the behavior of the various parties. (We say “various” because there may be more than one defendant in the case.) The court then decides how much blame each party deserves. In order to remain eligible for compensation, a plaintiff must be no more than 50 percent at fault. Then, when the plaintiff proves damages, the court reduces the amount by the plaintiff’s percentage of fault.

For example, a plaintiff sues a defendant alleging $200,000 in medical expenses, lost earnings and pain and suffering. The defendant alleges that the plaintiff was using a cellphone just prior to the accident, in violation of Massachusetts law. However, the court finds the defendant caused the accident by abruptly changing lanes and the plaintiff’s cellphone use delayed the plaintiff’s braking to avoid the defendant, worsening the collision. The court finds the plaintiff was 40 percent at fault for the accident. The court takes the $200,000 award and reduces it by 40 percent so that the defendant must pay $160,000.    

Insurance companies often use Massachusetts’ comparative negligence law to reduce the amount they must pay to indemnify their clients. Comparative negligence is another reason why it pays to retain an experienced auto accident attorney for your injury case. If you have questions about your rights after an accident, take advantage of a free consultation at Swartz & Lynch LLP. To schedule an appointment, call 857-250-0664 or contact our Boston office online.

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