Under Texas tort law, a person who is hurt due to the negligence of another individual, a business, or a governmental entity has the option of filing a civil lawsuit seeking compensation for damages such as pain and suffering, lost wages, and medical expenses.
In order to establish a prima facie case of negligence, the plaintiff must provide proof of four distinct elements: duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages.
Once this hurdle is met, other issues, including the amount of damages necessary to fully compensate the plaintiff for his or her injuries, must be decided. One of the most common issues that arise in Texas car accident cases is that of proportionate responsibility.
What Is “Proportionate Responsibility?”
In practical terms, proportionate responsibility refers to potential limitations on the plaintiff’s recovery due to his or her own negligence. Some states use different terminology, such as comparative fault, comparative negligence, or contributory negligence. The effect of the plaintiff’s negligence also varies from state to state, with some states taking a harsh view that any negligence by the plaintiff bars his or her recovery against the primary tortfeasor. There are also states in which the plaintiff can recover at least a portion of his or her damages, even if the defendant’s negligence represented only a small percentage of the fault.
Texas follows the moderate approach of allowing a plaintiff to recover damages against a negligent defendant as long as the plaintiff’s own negligence was not greater than 50%. Some states have similar laws but do not allow a plaintiff who is at least 50% at fault to recover damages. Although this 1% difference may not seem important, it can make a difference in whether a plaintiff walks away with compensation for half of his or her damages – or walks away with nothing.
How Does it Work in a Car Accident Case?
Let’s suppose that two vehicles are involved in a collision. Driver A is hurt and files a negligence claim against Driver B, averring that Driver B was at fault. Driver B files an answer to Driver A’s lawsuit, admitting that he was partially at fault but alleging that more than half of the blame for the accident rests on Driver A. If Driver B provides sufficient evidence of his allegation, the trial court will submit the issue to the jury.
If the jury finds the parties to be equally at fault, Driver A will recover half of her damages from Driver B. For example, Driver A may have had medical expenses of $25,000 and lost wages of $15,000. Additionally, the jury may have determined that she was entitled to $10,000 in compensation for the pain and suffering she endured while recovering from her injuries. The trial court judge would order Driver B to pay Driver A a total of $25,000 – exactly one-half of her total damages.
Alternatively, if the jury finds the plaintiff to be 51% or more at fault, he or she does not recover anything.
Who Decides Who Was at Fault?
The issue of who was at fault and in which percentage is typically a jury question. Behavior such as speeding, distracted driving, driving while intoxicated, failing to yield, and committing other traffic violations can all factor into the jury’s decision. Under Texas law, it is also possible for the jury to assign fault to a “responsible third party” who is not part of the lawsuit – such as a hit and run driver.
In such a case, the jury apportions fault among all of the tortfeasors. As long as the plaintiff is not more than 50% at fault, he or she can recover from the named defendant in the percentage of that defendant’s assigned negligence. Using the $50,000 total damages example above, if the jury assigns 40% of the fault to the defendant, 50% of the fault to the responsible third party, and 10% of the fault to the plaintiff, the defendant will owe the plaintiff $20,000.
Have You Been Hurt in a Wreck?
Experienced East Texas car accident attorney Earl Drott can help if you or a family member has been injured in a motor vehicle accident. Call us at (903) 531-9300 to set up a free consultation regarding your case. We handle cases throughout Tyler, Smith County, and other locations in East Texas.
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