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The Blame Game: Fault and Legal Liability in Florida

Apportioning fault is one of the most crucial yet challenging factors in the aftermath of a car accident.  Oftentimes, one driver is clearly to blame for a careless maneuver – running a red light, for instance.  Other times, however, fault isn’t so clear and may even be contrary to what the parties’ initial determinations are.

The difficulty in determining fault arises for a number of reasons.  First, the parties involved in the accident may not have clear memories of what happened in the moments prior to impact.  Second, there may be no independent witnesses to the accident.  Third, investigations by police and insurance companies may reach inaccurate conclusions as to fault.  It is not uncommon for drivers involved in an accident to receive unwarranted traffic citations that are later dismissed in court.  Finally, most accidents involve some level of shared fault between drivers that is not easy to quantify.

Imagine the following common accident scenario: Jane is waiting at a stop sign to turn left onto Busy Boulevard, a busy roadway with no stop signs.  Jack is driving down Busy Boulevard at a high rate of speed, going 15 mph over the posted speed limit.  Jane looks both ways and decides to turn onto Busy Boulevard when it looks clear.  She doesn’t see Jack coming, and Jack slams into her car because he is unable to slow or stop in time.  In this example, both Jack and Jane share the blame.  Jane should have been more cautious in making her turn, and Jack should not have been speeding.  With regard to legal liability, however, whether Jane can recover for her injuries depends on what state the accident occurred in and what that state’s comparative fault laws are.

There are three general types of shared fault laws: pure contributory negligence, pure comparative fault, and modified comparative fault.

Pure Contributory Negligence

A handful of states recognize the pure contributory negligence rule: parties may not collect damages if they are as little as 1% to blame for the accident.  Currently, only five states follow this legal rule: Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and DC.

Pure Comparative Fault

Florida follows the pure comparative fault rule, which allows parties to recover damages even if they are 99% at fault.  However, the amount of damages is limited by the party’s actual degree of fault.  So if the plaintiff is predominately to blame for an accident and makes an injury claim, he or she may only collect a minimal amount of damages that is equal to the defendant’s percentage of fault.  Nearly one-third of states follow this rule, including California, Florida, and New York.

Using the example above and assuming Jane’s damages are $100,000, a jury may find that Jane was 20% at fault and therefore her recovery would be limited to $80,000 ($100,000 reduced by 20% caused by her own negligence).  Or, a jury may find that Jane was 80% at fault, in which case she would only be able to recover $20,000.

Modified Comparative Fault                            

Most states follow the modified comparative fault model, which is split into two distinct categories: the 50% bar rule and the 51% bar rule. In states following the 50% rule (including Georgia), a party that is 50% or more responsible for an accident may not recover any damages.  In states adhering to the 51% rule, a party may not recover if he or she is 51% or more at fault.

If you or someone you know has been injured in an accident, it is important to discuss your specific situation with a competent and experienced attorney.  Baggett Law provides free, confidential consultations. 904-396-1100

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