Legal Dictionary

contributory negligence

Legal Definition of contributory negligence


  1. The negligence of a person which, while not being the primary cause of a tort, nevertheless combined with the act or omission of the primary defendant to cause the tort, and without which the tort would not have occurred.

Definition of contributory negligence


contributory negligence (uncountable)

  1. (law) The rule of law under which an act or omission of plaintiff is a contributing cause of injury and a possible bar to a complete recovery.

Further reading

Contributory negligence is a common law defense to a claim based on negligence, an action in tort. It applies to cases where a plaintiff has, through his own negligence, contributed to the harm he suffered. For example, a pedestrian crosses a road negligently and is hit by a driver who was driving negligently.

Contributory negligence differs from contribution, which is a claim brought by one tortfeasor against another to recover some or all of the money damages awarded to the plaintiff.


At common law, contributory negligence is an absolute defense. If a defendant successfully raises the defense, he would not be liable for the tort. An undesirable result may occur when a plaintiff is completely barred from recovery even if his own negligence was slight.

Most jurisdictions in the U.S. have modified the doctrine, either by court decision or by legislation, to comparative negligence. Under comparative negligence, the jury reduces the award to the plaintiff by the extent of the plaintiff's contribution to the harm. In England and Wales, the Law Reform (Contributory Negligence) Act 1945 had a similar effect (the similar, current doctrine being termed Acts of the claimant). Maryland, Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia retain contributory negligence as a complete defense to negligence.


Contributory negligence is generally a defense to a tort of negligence. The defense is not available, if the tortfeasor's conduct amounts to malicious or intentional wrongdoing, rather than to ordinary negligence. In England and Wales, it is not a defense to the tort of conversion or trespass to chattels. In the U.S., it is not a defense to any intentional tort.


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