Legal Dictionary

comparative negligence

Legal Definition of comparative negligence


  1. A principle of tort law which looks at the negligence of the victim and which may lead to either a reduction of the award against the defendant, proportionate to the contribution of the victim's negligence, or which may even prevent an award altogether if the victim's negligence, when compared with the defendant, is equal to or greater in terms or contributing to the situation which caused the injury or damage.

Definition of comparative negligence

Further reading

Comparative negligence, or non-absolute contributory negligence outside of the United States, is a partial legal defense that reduces the amount of damages that a plaintiff can recover in a negligence-based claim based upon the degree to which the plaintiff's own negligence contributed to cause the injury. When the defense is asserted, the fact-finder, usually a jury, must decide the degree to which the plaintiff's negligence versus the combined negligence of all other relevant actors contributed to cause the plaintiff's damages. It is a modification of the doctrine of contributory negligence which disallows any recovery by a plaintiff whose negligence contributed, even minimally, to causing the damages.


Prior to the late 1960s, however, only a few states had adopted this system. When comparative negligence was adopted, three main versions were used. The first was called "pure" comparative negligence. A plaintiff who was, say, 90% to blame for an accident could recover 10% of his losses. (Of course, if the defendant suffered injuries in such a case, he/she could counter claim and recover 90% of his/her losses from the other party.)

The second and third versions are lumped together in what is called "modified" comparative negligence. One variant allows plaintiffs to recover only if the plaintiff's negligence is "not greater than" the defendant's (viz., the plaintiff's negligence must not be more than 50% of the combined negligence of both parties).

The other variant allows plaintiffs to recover only if the plaintiff's negligence is "not as great as" the defendant's (viz., the plaintiff's negligence must be less than 50% of the combined negligence). The apparently minor difference between the two modified forms of comparative negligence are thought by lawyers handling such cases to be significant in that juries who ordinarily assign degrees of fault are much less willing to award damages to a plaintiff who is equally at fault than to one who is less at fault than the defendant.


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