What Is Contributory Negligence

Defendants may use contributory negligence as a defense in personal injury cases when they feel the plaintiff’s behavior or inaction contributed to the injury or damages. In workers’ compensation claims, an employer is likely to claim contributory negligence if a worker didn’t wear safety gear as instructed or didn’t follow proper protocol when performing their job. To prove this negligence, the employer may furnish liability waivers or hold harmless agreements the employee signed before performing a job.

One of the first cases in a court of law to use contributory negligence as a defense was Davies versus Mann in 1842. In this case, the plaintiff’s donkey was killed on a public street after being hit by the defendant’s wagon. 

The defendant claimed contributory negligence because the donkey was tied to the side of the road haphazardly by the defendant. While contributory negligence was proven, the plaintiff still recovered some damages because it was also concluded that the defendant wasn’t driving carefully.

To successfully claim contributory negligence, the defendant must prove that the plaintiff didn’t act with reasonable care. It must be proven that the plaintiff’s negligence was what caused damages or injuries.

Pure Contributory Negligence

There are different ways that contributory negligence is handled in a court of law. If a state observes pure contributory negligence consumer laws, a plaintiff is barred from receiving any recovery from damages if they’re found to be even 1% negligent in the case. If it’s proven that the victim’s negligence contributed at all to the injury, all recovery is denied.

For example, let’s say a distracted driver (defendant) hits another vehicle traveling the other direction (plaintiff) in a head-on collision. While the defendant was the one distracted, the defendant claims contributory negligence because the plaintiff’s vehicle was a few inches over the double-yellow lines. If the defendant is successful in proving contributory negligence, the plaintiff won’t receive any recovery for their damages.

Contributory Negligence by State

Contributory negligence is a harsh and strict law that isn’t enforced in every state. Most states determine if they’ll allow for contributory negligence through common law, which are laws enacted from judicial decisions as opposed to statutes. In the U.S., only Washington D.C., Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia enforce contributory negligence laws.

Washington, D.C.

In Washington, D.C. the case that implemented this authority was Wingfield versus People’s Drug Store. Wingfield was provided with the wrong prescription drugs, which caused negative physical and mental side effects. 

Wingfield pursued legal action against the drugstore due to their negligence. The defendant claimed contributory negligence against the plaintiff but the claim was denied by the jury. Wingfield was awarded recovery for damages.

The only exception to pure contributory negligence in Washington, D.C. is when a pedestrian, bicyclist, or other non-motorized vehicle operator is the plaintiff in a case against the driver of a motorized vehicle. In these cases, the plaintiff’s recovery is not completely barred and it must be determined if the plaintiff was completely negligent or at least more negligent than the defendant.


In Alabama, two judicial hearings caused the state to implement contributory negligence laws. The Alabama Power Company versus Schotz case in 1968 involved a car accident between Schotz and an Alabama Power Company worker in a company vehicle. The power company claimed contributory negligence against Schotz but was overruled and the plaintiff received $20,000 in damages. 

In the John Cowley and Brothers, Inc. versus Brown case in 1990, Brown sued John Crowley and Brothers, Inc. after being injured working on a steel tank the company-owned. Crowley attempted to claim contributory negligence, stating that Brown didn’t proceed with caution before cutting into the tank. The jury denied this contributory negligence claim and Brown received $300,000 in damages.


Maryland observes contributory negligence, even with several rulings that challenged this state law. One well-known case in Maryland that challenged contributory negligence is Coleman versus the Soccer Association of Columbia

Coleman grabbed a soccer goal’s crossbar during practice and fell because the goal wasn’t properly anchored. He pursued legal action against the association due to his injuries. The association claimed contributory negligence against Coleman. Since the jury identified at least 1% negligence on behalf of Coleman, he didn’t receive any recovery.

North Carolina

In North Carolina, the Smith versus Fiber Controls Corporation case in 1980 set the precedent for contributory negligence laws. Smith attempted to seek recovery from injuries caused by poor equipment design. However, Fiber Controls Corporation claimed contributory negligence because the plaintiff didn’t have the proper training to use the equipment correctly and no recovery was awarded to the plaintiff.


Virginia claims to enforce pure contributory negligence laws in its court system. This concludes that if it’s proven a plaintiff had the slightest contributory negligence in a situation, they’re barred from receiving recovery. However, the law also states that “if the plaintiff’s action only contributes slightly or trivially to the injury, the contributory negligence will not act as a complete bar.” This leniency was developed in response to the Simpson versus Lambert Brothers Division-Vulcan Materials Company case, in which Simpson was injured by an employee operating heavy machinery. 

Examples of Contributory Negligence

To illustrate contributory negligence, consider a pedestrian that walks across the street and is hit by a car. The pedestrian sues the driver for compensatory damages due to an injury. The driver claims contributory negligence because the pedestrian was jaywalking, assumed risk, and was negligent. 

In another example, a construction worker is injured on the job when he slips and falls into a ditch and decides to sue his employer for recovery from damages. The construction worker’s lawyer helps him take action against the construction company for this workplace injury. The company claims contributory negligence because the worker was wearing improper footwear on the job site, which is explicitly outlined in the employment agreement.

Contributory Negligence vs. Comparative Negligence

If a defendant successfully claims contributory negligence against a plaintiff in one of the states that observes this law, all recovery is barred. In the other 45 states, comparative negligence is observed instead of pure contributory negligence. 

With comparative negligence, the plaintiff’s negligence in the case is taken into account but doesn’t disqualify them from recovery. If the defendant proves a contributory negligence claim, the court calculates a percentage of the plaintiff’s negligence. This plaintiff’s awarded recovery is reduced by the percentage of their negligence. 

If you want to pursue legal action, it’s important to know about the contributory negligence laws in your jurisdiction. Whether you feel you’ve been wrongfully terminated or you’re injured on the job, knowing about negligence laws will help you develop a case. A contract with an indemnification clause may also affect your case. Before pursuing action, seek legal assistance from a professional so you know your options.

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