Personal injury law in New Jersey and elsewhere is based on the concept of “negligence.” The law expects people to use reasonable care in their daily activities. A person who fails to use reasonable care is deemed to have been negligent, and that person is liable for the damages caused by their negligent act or omission. But what happens if both parties are negligent? Prior to the 1950s, a person whose negligence contributed to a motor vehicle accident could not recover damages from any other negligent person, even if the second person’s negligence far exceeded that of the plaintiff.
In the mid-1950s, state legislatures began to revise this rule — called contributory negligence — because of its often harsh and unfair effect. New Jersey enacted a law that requires comparing the degree of negligence of each party at fault for the accident and awarding damages to the parties whose fault was less than the other parties. The new rule is often referred to as comparative fault.
The comparative fault law has some important limits. No one can collect damages from a person whose degree of fault is less than that of the party seeking damages. In addition, damages are reduced to reflect the percentages of fault assessed against each party at fault. For example, a person who is judged to have been 30 percent at fault for the accident can only recover 70 percent of his or her losses.
The need to assess comparative fault often makes multi-vehicle accidents very complex. Anyone who has been injured or lost a loved one in a multi-vehicle accident may wish to consult an attorney who handles such cases for advice on how a jury may allocate fault and whether significant damages can be recovered.