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What is Comparative Negligence? Pure Comparative Negligence in California

Accidents happen, and when they result in personal injuries, determining who is at fault can become a pivotal aspect of seeking fair compensation. A majority of these lawsuits are based on the concept of negligence, which is the failure to exercise proper care in doing something. In the eyes of the law, there is a reasonable expectation for individuals and entities to act according to certain standards. If they fail to do so, and as a result, someone is injured, they must compensate the person injured.

There are various types of negligence, including comparative negligence, contributory negligence, gross negligence, and vicarious negligence. However, the two main types of negligence laws are comparative and contributory. Each state employs different negligence laws. In California, for example, the legal system employs the concept of comparative negligence to address these complex situations. 

As a leading plaintiff’s firm handling personal injury, mass torts, class actions, etc. throughout California, we know that understanding the intricacies of the law and knowing your rights as a victim in a personal injury case can get overwhelming. That’s why we’re here to help. At Kiesel Law, LLP, we recognize the importance of understanding this nuanced legal principle, as it serves as a cornerstone in our pursuit of justice on behalf of our clients throughout the Golden State.

Keep reading to learn what comparative negligence is and how this doctrine compares to other types of negligence laws. 

What is Comparative Negligence in California?

Comparative negligence is a fundamental legal doctrine applied in California personal injury cases, which allows courts to determine the proportionate fault of each party involved in an accident. Under this system, even if the injured party shares some responsibility for the incident, they can still seek compensation from other at-fault parties. The damages awarded are adjusted based on the determined percentage of fault, ensuring a fair allocation of liability and enabling the injured party to recover a portion of their losses commensurate with the degree of fault attributed to each party. 

California’s adoption of pure comparative negligence reflects a progressive and equitable approach, promoting fairness and providing injured individuals with the opportunity to seek rightful compensation for their injuries and damages.

Pure Comparative Negligence vs. Modified Comparative Negligence 

Comparative negligence is a fundamental legal doctrine that plays a crucial role in personal injury cases, allowing courts to assess the proportionate fault of each party involved. Unlike some states that follow different negligence systems, California adheres to a pure comparative negligence approach, which can significantly impact the outcomes of injury claims.

There are two main types of comparative negligence rules followed within different jurisdictions in the US: pure comparative negligence and modified comparative negligence. These rules depend on the percentage of negligence assigned to each party in a case. 

Pure Comparative Negligence

Modified Comparative Negligence

Under a pure comparative negligence system, the plaintiff can recover damages from the other at-fault party even if they are assigned 99% fault for the accident. The compensation they receive is adjusted based on their determined percentage of fault. 

For instance, if a court finds the plaintiff 80% at fault and the defendant 20% at fault, the plaintiff can still claim 20% of the total damages incurred.

In contrast, some states adopt a partial comparative negligence system, which bars the plaintiff from recovering any compensation if their fault reaches or exceeds a certain threshold (often 50% or more).

In these jurisdictions, plaintiffs are only eligible to pursue damages if they are less than 50% responsible for the accident.


Pure comparative negligence and modified comparative negligence differ fundamentally in their treatment of plaintiffs who contribute to an accident. While the former allows for partial recovery no matter how substantial the plaintiff’s fault may be, the latter imposes a strict barrier, disallowing any recovery once the plaintiff’s fault surpasses the defined threshold.

Types of comparative negligence laws

Benefits of Pure Comparative Negligence:

  • Fair Allocation of Responsibility: One of the primary advantages of pure comparative negligence in California is its commitment to fairness. This system ensures that each party involved in an accident is held accountable for their respective share of fault. It prevents unfair outcomes where a plaintiff with some degree of negligence is completely barred from seeking compensation.
  • Partial Recovery Even for Plaintiffs Mostly at Fault: Pure comparative negligence allows injured parties to recover damages even when they are predominantly responsible for the accident. For example, if a plaintiff is found to be 90% at fault, they can still seek 10% of the total damages, acknowledging their partial contribution to the incident.
  • Encourages Settlements: The availability of partial recovery encourages parties to reach settlements outside of court. Knowing that some compensation is possible, even if the case goes to trial, can incentivize defendants to negotiate in good faith, potentially leading to faster resolutions.

Drawbacks of Pure Comparative Negligence:

  • Complex Legal Proceedings: Determining the exact percentage of fault for each party involved can lead to complex and time-consuming legal proceedings. Multiple factors and evidence must be thoroughly evaluated to arrive at a fair assessment of fault, potentially prolonging the litigation process.
  • Reduced Compensation: Plaintiffs who bear a significant portion of fault will inevitably receive reduced compensation. While the system aims to be fair, it can result in comparatively lower recoveries for plaintiffs who share a substantial part of the blame.

Benefits of Modified Comparative Negligence:

  • Incentive for Responsible Behavior: The existence of a threshold in partial comparative negligence encourages individuals to exercise greater care and responsibility to avoid accidents. Knowing that they may be barred from recovery if their fault exceeds the threshold can promote cautious behavior.
  • Simplicity in Determining Eligibility: Unlike pure comparative negligence, partial comparative negligence offers a clearer criterion for determining eligibility for recovery. If the plaintiff’s fault falls below the prescribed threshold, they can pursue damages without the need for complex percentage calculations.

Drawbacks of Modified Comparative Negligence:

  • Harsh Outcomes for Plaintiffs: One of the significant drawbacks of partial comparative negligence is its potential for harsh outcomes. If the plaintiff’s degree of fault surpasses the threshold, they are entirely barred from recovering any damages, even if their contribution to the accident is minimal.
  • Discourages Legitimate Claims: The fear of surpassing the threshold and losing any opportunity for recovery might discourage some plaintiffs from pursuing legitimate claims, as they may hesitate to initiate legal proceedings.

In California, the adoption of pure comparative negligence reflects a more equitable approach to personal injury cases, promoting fairness in allocating responsibility and ensuring partial recovery for injured parties, regardless of their degree of fault. While modified comparative negligence might offer simplicity in some instances, it can also lead to harsh outcomes and deter some plaintiffs from seeking rightful compensation.

Which States Have Pure Comparative Negligence Laws?

There are 12 states in the US that have pure comparative negligence laws:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Florida
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Rhode Island
  • Washington

The remaining 38 states have modified comparative negligence laws, except for South Dakota, which is the only state to recognize the slight/gross negligence rule.

Comparative Negligence vs. Contributory Negligence

On the opposite side of the negligence coin is contributory negligence. While comparative negligence can allow for the plaintiff to recover some damages even if they are partially at fault, under contributory negligence, the plaintiff is barred from recovering damages if they bear any percentage of fault. 

Comparative negligence vs contributory negligence

What is Contributory Negligence?

Contributory negligence is a legal doctrine that was historically followed in some jurisdictions but is now mostly replaced by comparative negligence due to its inflexibility and perceived unfairness. Under contributory negligence, if a plaintiff is found to have contributed in any way to the accident or their injuries, even in the slightest manner, they are entirely barred from recovering any damages from the other parties involved, regardless of their degree of fault. 

This strict all-or-nothing approach has been criticized for its harsh implications, leaving injured parties without any compensation even when their negligence is relatively minor compared to others involved in the incident.

How Does Contributory Negligence Work?

To better understand how contributory negligence operates, let’s consider a hypothetical scenario. Suppose a pedestrian is struck by a car while crossing the road outside a designated crosswalk. In a contributory negligence jurisdiction, if the court determines that the pedestrian’s jaywalking contributed in any way to the accident, even if the driver was primarily at fault, the pedestrian would be completely barred from seeking any compensation for their injuries and damages.

Why is Comparative Negligence Better than Contributory Negligence?

  • Fairness and Equity: Comparative negligence, on the other hand, offers a more balanced and equitable approach to resolving personal injury cases. It acknowledges that accidents are often multifaceted, and various parties may share different degrees of responsibility. By assessing and apportioning fault accordingly, comparative negligence ensures a fair distribution of liability and allows injured parties to seek compensation proportionate to their level of fault.
  • Partial Recovery for Injured Parties: Under comparative negligence, even if the plaintiff is primarily responsible for the accident, they are not entirely deprived of compensation. The injured party can still recover damages in proportion to the fault of other parties involved, enabling them to receive some form of redress for their losses, promoting a more just and compassionate outcome.
  • Encourages Settlements and Reduces Litigation: The availability of partial recovery in comparative negligence jurisdictions often encourages parties to reach settlements outside of court. Knowing that they can still obtain some compensation even if the case goes to trial, both plaintiffs and defendants may be more inclined to negotiate in good faith, potentially leading to swifter and more amicable resolutions.

While contributory negligence was once a prevalent legal doctrine, comparative negligence has emerged as a far more balanced and compassionate approach to handling personal injury cases. By permitting partial recovery for injured parties and considering the varying degrees of fault, comparative negligence fosters a system that prioritizes fairness, encourages settlements, and ultimately ensures that injured individuals have a chance to seek rightful compensation for their losses. 

California’s adoption of comparative negligence reflects a progressive and just legal approach, aligning with the values of promoting fairness and justice in the resolution of personal injury claims.

An infographic demonstrating an example of comparative negligecnce in california where 2 cars are 75% and 25% responsible for an accident

Examples of Comparative Negligence in California

To fully understand how the principle of comparative negligence works in the state of California, let’s look at some examples. 

Example 1: 

In a slip-and-fall accident at a grocery store, a customer is walking down an aisle when they accidentally slip on a spilled liquid. Upon further examination, it is revealed that the grocery store had placed warning signs indicating the wet floor, but the customer was distractedly looking at their phone while walking. The court finds that the customer was 30% at fault for not paying attention, while the grocery store was 70% at fault for not promptly cleaning the spill or preventing access to the hazardous area. 

California’s pure comparative negligence system allows the injured customer to seek compensation for their injuries. However, their recovery will be adjusted to reflect their assigned percentage of fault. If the total damages amount to $50,000, the customer can recover $35,000 (70% of the total damages).

Example 2: 

A motorcyclist is traveling slightly above the speed limit on a busy highway when suddenly, a distracted driver in a car fails to notice the motorcycle and changes lanes abruptly, causing a collision. Upon investigation, it is determined that the motorcyclist was 20% at fault for speeding, and the driver of the car was 80% at fault for not exercising due care. 

Under California’s pure comparative negligence system, the motorcyclist in this auto accident can pursue compensation for their injuries and damages. However, their recovery will be reduced by 20%, reflecting their assigned percentage of fault. Thus, if the total damages amount to $100,000, the motorcyclist can recover $80,000 (80% of the total damages).

Case Examples Analysis: 

In both examples, comparative negligence in California enables the injured parties to recover damages even when they share some degree of responsibility for the accidents. The proportionate allocation of fault ensures that each party is held accountable for their actions, while still granting injured individuals the opportunity to seek rightful compensation for their losses based on the degree of fault assigned to them.

Now, under a contributory negligence system, the injured parties would not be able to recover any damages due to being partially at fault. 

Have you Been Injured Due to Negligence in California? Call Kiesel Law LLP

If you have been involved in an accident in California and are uncertain about your rights and options under the state’s comparative negligence laws, don’t hesitate to seek guidance from a seasoned personal injury lawyer. At Kiesel Law LLP, our team of dedicated legal experts is well-versed in navigating the complexities of pure comparative negligence cases. We understand the importance of obtaining fair and just compensation for your injuries and losses, regardless of the degree of fault involved.

By consulting with our experienced attorneys, you can gain a comprehensive understanding of how California’s comparative negligence system may apply to your specific situation. We will thoroughly assess the circumstances of your case, ensuring that all relevant evidence is examined to accurately determine the degree of fault attributed to each party involved. We will fight for your rights and maximize your recovery, regardless of any partial responsibility you may bear.

Remember, time is of the essence in personal injury cases, as evidence can quickly fade, and statutes of limitations may apply. Don’t delay seeking legal counsel – contact us today for a confidential and no-obligation consultation. Let us stand by your side, providing unwavering support and advocacy to secure the compensation you rightfully deserve. Trust Kiesel Law LLP to be your reliable legal partner in pursuing justice for your personal injury case in California.