Comparative Fault in Automotive Products Liability Cases

Comparative Fault in Automotive Products Liability Cases

Tort law is the branch of the legal system that deals with cases in which an individual or other legally recognized entity, such as a corporation or governmental unit, seeks to recover damages from another person for a private injury or wrong not arising out of a contractual relationship. Tort actions are often based on the concept of negligence, which the law generally defines in such a context as the failure to meet the standard of care required to avoid subjecting another to unreasonable risk of injury. Under traditional tort law principles, if the plaintiff in such a case was found to have been guilty of what is called contributory negligence, which is generally defined as a failure to use due care that contributes to the plaintiff's own injury, the plaintiff would be barred from recovering any damages from the defendant. More recently, many courts have adopted a doctrine called comparative fault or comparative negligence in deciding such cases.

Under a comparative fault system, the portion of the fault or responsibility borne by each party in an incident that has resulted in a tort action will be allocated by the jury (or by the judge in cases heard without a jury) and the damages awarded to the plaintiff will be reduced by a percentage reflecting that allocation of fault. The doctrine of comparative fault is readily adopted in products liability actions, including automotive products liability actions, in which the thrust of the plaintiff's proof is directed not at negligence or at the nature of a manufacturer's conduct, but at the allegedly defective condition of a product and the manner in which the product defect caused the death, personal injury, or property damage for which the plaintiff seeks to recover damages. Comparative fault principles are often employed in automotive products liability cases in which plaintiffs claim that the design of a vehicle caused the vehicle occupants to suffer greater injuries than they would have suffered had the vehicle been properly designed. A manufacturer in such a case may argue that an injured party was at fault for failing to make use of an available seat belt and that his or her damages should be reduced or eliminated accordingly.

The law of products liability in the United States, including automotive products liability law, has evolved over more than half a century out of the separate legal systems of each of the states rather than out of a single unified body of federal law. As a result, the legal standards governing the application of comparative fault principles in automotive products liability cases will vary from state to state.


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