What is contributory negligence?
Virginia is one of only five jurisdictions that applies the pure contributory negligence doctrine to car accident claims. The other four jurisdictions are Alabama, D.C., Maryland, and North Carolina.
What does it mean for a state to follow the pure contributory negligence doctrine? It means that a car accident victim who is at fault to any degree may be denied compensation for his or her damages in Virginia. Contributory negligence is a complete defense to an auto accident lawsuit, and the court’s finding that the plaintiff’s negligence contributed to their injury will bar recovery.
Contributory negligence is often defined as a driver’s failure to act as a reasonable driver would have acted for his own safety under the same factual circumstances. Gardner v. Phipps, 250 Va. 256, 462 S.E.2d 91 (1995). There is no bright line test to determine if the plaintiff’s negligence contributed to his damages. Virginia court decisions, however, do provide some guidance. For example, Virginia courts have found contributory negligence where:
- The plaintiff driver failed to see a large vehicle from a distance of approximately 100 yards;
- The plaintiff driver slammed on the brakes and stopped in the middle of the road;
- The plaintiff passenger knew the defendant driver had consumed enough alcohol to impair his ability to drive.
Virginia courts will not allow contributory negligence to bar recovery where the defendant was willfully and wantonly negligent.