A group of North Carolina Republicans recently introduced legislation designed to end North Carolina’s long-standing contributory negligence law. Senators Danny Britt, Jr. (R – District 13), Jim Perry (R – District 7), and Amy Galey (R – District 24) are the primary sponsors of SB477, entitled The Victim’s Fair Treatment Act. North Carolina is one of only a handful of states that retains the archaic law of pure contributory negligence. The law holds that if an injured Plaintiff bears any responsibility for the harm, even if that responsibility is less than 1%, the Plaintiff is barred from recovering in a lawsuit. As you might imagine, this law has yielded some unsettling results where careless individuals get off scot-free because of a sliver of fault on the Plaintiff’s shoulders.
Before most of us were born, this contributory negligence law was the law in every state. But slowly, legislatures and courts started to grasp the inherent unfairness of contributory negligence. In 1953, the United States Supreme Court described contributory negligence as a "discredited doctrine which automatically destroys all claims of injured persons who have contributed to their injuries in any degree, however slight.” Pope & Talbot, Inc v. Hawn, 346 U.S. 406 (1953). In the mid-20th century, states all across the country began to change their laws from the strict harshness of contributory negligence in favor of compensation systems that were designed to match the proportion of the resulting damages to the proportion of each person’s fault. Thus, when a Plaintiff is at fault, his or her recovery is reduced by the percentage of fault attributable to the Plaintiff instead of just a blanket zero recovery.
These systems now operate in nearly 90% of the nation. And they yield much fairer outcomes, eliminating the absurd results where a plaintiff is a tiny fraction at fault, yet he or she cannot recover anything in damages from the wrongdoer.
Unsurprisingly, the NC Chamber pounced on the proposed legislation as an attempted attack on the favorable business climate NC seeks to foster. In a letter to state Senators, The NC Chamber, the Insurance Federation of North Carolina and others, wrote that contributory negligence brings balance to the civil liability system and is a vital component in a carefully established system of legal checks and balances designed to fairly determine negligence in personal injury lawsuits.
When someone is injured because of the carelessness and negligence of another, the law aims to hold the careless party responsible. When both parties are careless, but to different degrees, the current contributory negligence law in NC brings a chainsaw to the case. More contemporary fault-based systems, like the proposed SB477, seek to replace the chainsaw with a more precise scalpel.