Apportionment of Fault & Damages | Houston Trial Attorney
How do you know your claim will be paid? Who should pay it? What happens when multiple parties were at fault and each contributed to your injury? What if you were partially at fault for your own injury? These are all questions that a Houston personal injury lawyer can help you answer. Call one of the Houston accident attorneys listed on this site today for an explanation of the law relating to apportionment of fault and damages. Your Houston injury lawyer will help make sure that you name all responsible parties in your lawsuit and that each is held accountable for the portion of damages they caused.
Although a Harris County accident attorney can give a more detailed explanation of the law relevant to your case, the following gives a general description of Texas’s laws on apportionment of fault and damages:
Contributory Negligence, Comparative Negligence, and Joint and Several Liability
Each state has different rules on how to govern the liability of the different parties involved in a civil tort claim. In the simplest tort situation, one person is completely at fault and has to pay for all of the damages. Unfortunately, not all cases are as simple as this. In many cases, multiple parties are responsible for one person’s injuries. The situation is even more difficult when the injured party is also at fault. To deal with these complicated tort scenarios, the different state court systems have devised methods for apportioning fault. Unfortunately, some personal injury cases can become more complicated. While some states use the contributory negligence rules, other states use a comparative fault system. Finally, other states use modified versions of these systems. Thus, there are four possible systems that a state can use:
- pure contributory negligence,
- pure comparative negligence,
- 50% modified comparative negligence, and
- 51% modified comparative negligence.
Often, an innocent party suffers an injury due to two other parties’ negligent actions. Thus, the law had to develop a system of rules to apportion fault amongst two negligent parties. This situation becomes even more complicated when one of the negligent parties cannot cover his share of the damages. In response to this difficult situation, courts developed the legal system of joint and several liability, which is explained at greater length below.
Contributory Negligence Explained
The central tenet of pure contributory negligence requires a person to play no part in an accident to recover any award of damages. Thus, a defendant in a personal injury case could avoid having to pay a plaintiff any damages if he or she were able to show that the plaintiff was in any way negligent, regardless of how small the percentage of fault attributed to the plaintiff was. Simply put, if you in any way contributed to your own suffering and injury, then you cannot recover for your personal injury under a contributory negligence system. Currently, only five states adhere to the contributory negligence fault apportionment system, and Texas is not one of them. Thus, if you are a Houston or Harris County injury victim, you will not have to worry about whether a small amount of personal negligence that contributed to your injury will bar your recovery entirely.
Comparative Negligence Explained
In contrast to the contributory negligence system, under the comparative negligence system a party may recover damages regardless of whether the plaintiff contributed to her injury. Instead of being a complete bar to recovery, the plaintiff’s recovery is reduced by his or her percentage of fault. If your state is one of the thirteen states that currently use the pure comparative negligence system, the jury in your case will be instructed to apportion fault by percentage of fault attributable to each of the parties involved in the lawsuit. The judge presiding over your personal injury case will then take those percentages and divide up the damage award accordingly.
The remaining U.S. states use one of the two modified comparative fault systems. Twelve states use the 50% comparative fault system. Under this modified version of comparative fault, a plaintiff can only recover if the jury apportions that plaintiff only 49% or less of the fault in causing the accident to the plaintiff. Therefore, if the jury determines that a plaintiff is 50% responsible, then that plaintiff will not be able to recover. The states that do not follow either comparative negligence system explained above or contributory negligence use the 51% comparative fault system. Under this modified version of comparative fault, an injured party can only recover when the jury determines that his percentage of fault is less than 51%. Unlike the 50% comparative fault system, a plaintiff in a 51% comparative fault jurisdiction can still recover even if both parties were equally, meaning 50% at fault, or responsible for the injury. This is the system used in Texas and will be applicable to your Houston personal injury case.
Joint and Several Liability Explained
As mentioned above, a simple personal injury claim can quickly become complicated when a plaintiff’s injury is caused by multiple defendants. In these situations, the legal system must figure out a just solution to numerous problems. Who is responsible for paying the damages? The party more at fault? Both negligent parties? What happens when one of the defendants does not have the resources to pay his share of the fault? Just as each state approaches the apportionment of fault differently, the different state court systems have also answered these questions differently. Some courts have applied the theory of joint liability. Meanwhile, other states use the theory of several liability. Finally, some courts use the legal theory of joint and several liability.
Under the legal theory of joint liability, each defendant is held liable up to the total amount of the financial obligation, or the damages awarded. However, this does not mean that the plaintiff recovers the total amount from each defendant, thereby allowing him a double recovery. On the other hand, in state courts that apply the several liability system, each defendant is liable for the portion of fault that the jury attributes to him or her. The third solution to the difficult questions above is the system of joint and several liability. Under this system, each defendant is held responsible for his or her percentage of fault. If, however, one of the other defendants is unable to cover his percentage of fault due to a lack of monetary resources, then the remaining defendants must make up the shortcomings for the defendant that is unable to pay his amount of the plaintiff’s damages. Proponents of this system argue that it is the best scenario because it allows the plaintiff to be fully compensated. Houston, Texas personal injury cases follow a system of joint and several liability, so, legally speaking, you have the greatest chance of receiving a full recovery in your Houston personal injury case.
The Texas Fault & Liability Systems
As noted, Texas law follows the 51% modified comparative negligence system and the joint and several liability system. Thus, a Houston injury victim may only recover if his or her liability amounts to 50% of the fault or less. For example, if two people are involved in a Harris County car accident and one party is found to be 52% at fault, he may not, under Texas law, recover from the other party. However, if both parties are found to be 50% at fault in causing the car accident, then each may recover from the other. Assume that three cars were involved in a car accident and cars 2 and 3 were at fault. Then, under Texas law, car 2 could be held fully liable if car 3 was unable to pay his share of damages to car 1, the injured party.
For more information on the apportionment of fault and damages in your specific case, call a Houston personal injury attorney today for a free initial consultation.
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