Car accidents happen in South Carolina all the time. Sometimes it is easy to determine who was at fault, and under other circumstances doing so can be incredibly difficult. Determining who is liable gets increasingly complicated when multiple parties are jointly at fault for causing a single accident. This happens all the time. For example, if you are texting while driving down the freeway and a drunk driver swerves into you, a court would likely find that both you and the other driver are both partially at fault. In this hypothetical, would you be able to successfully pursue a car accident claim against the drunk driver despite the fact that you were partially at fault for causing the accident? In South Carolina, the answer depends on whether or not your negligence exceeded the negligence of the other driver.
Comparative Negligence in South Carolina
Comparative negligence is a rule of law that some states, including South Carolina, use in order to determine legal responsibility for damages caused by an accident. In comparative negligence states, a plaintiff (the person suing) can recover damages from an accident that their negligence partially caused. In other words, comparative negligence allows a driver who is partially at fault for a car accident to still recover damages. Additionally, South Carolina imposes a “51 percent bar rule” which means that a plaintiff can only recover damages if their negligence did not exceed the defendants’ combined negligence. For example, if a plaintiff in South Carolina is 40 percent at fault (negligent) for causing a car accident and the defendant is 60 percent at fault, then the plaintiff will be able to recover damages because his negligence did not exceed the defendant’s negligence. Additionally, under a comparative negligence system, a plaintiff’s recovery is reduced by the percentage of their fault. The following examples will help illustrate how recovery under a comparative negligence system works.
- Example #1: A court finds that the plaintiff was 30 percent at fault, the defendant was 70 percent at fault, and that the plaintiff’s damages from the accident totaled $100,000. In this case, the plaintiff would be allowed to recover because their negligence did not exceed the defendant’s negligence, and they would be able to recover $70,000 as the defendant was only liable for 70 percent of $100,000 worth of damage.
- Example #2: A court finds that the plaintiff and the defendant were equally responsible for causing the accident, in other words both parties were 50 percent at fault. In this case, the plaintiff’s negligence still does not exceed the defendant’s negligence, and therefore the plaintiff can recover 50 percent of the damage that they sustained. Therefore, if the plaintiff incurred $100,000 worth of damage then the court would award the plaintiff a verdict for $50,000, or 50 percent.
- Example #3: What happens if multiple parties were at fault for causing the accident? In these instances, the plaintiff is only barred from recovery if their negligence exceeds the combined negligence of the defendants. Therefore, if the plaintiff was 30 percent at fault, defendant A was 60 percent at fault, and defendant B was 10 percent at fault, then the plaintiff would be able to recover under a comparative negligence system because the defendants’ combined negligence totals 70 percent, which is more than the plaintiff’s 30 percent.
Types of Comparative Negligence
It is important to note that not all comparative fault states operate in the same way. In fact, there are three different forms of comparative negligence that are used in the United States.
- Pure Comparative Negligence: Under a pure comparative fault system a plaintiff is able to recover, no matter how negligent they were, as long as the other party was at least partially negligent. In other words, a plaintiff who is 99 percent at fault can recover one percent of their damages from the defendant who was one percent at fault.
- Modified Comparative Negligence with a 50 Percent Bar Rule: In order for a plaintiff to recover under a modified comparative negligence system that imposes a 50 percent bar rule, the plaintiff must be less negligent than the defendants’ combined negligence.
- Modified Comparative Negligence with a 51 Percent Bar Rule: In states that impose modified comparative negligence with a 51 percent bar rule, such as South Carolina, a plaintiff is only barred from recovery if they are more negligent than the defendants’ combined negligence.
It should be noted that some states do not employ comparative negligence systems at all, and instead embrace contributory negligence. Under a contributory negligence system a plaintiff who was partially at fault for causing an accident is not allowed to collect damages at all from a negligent defendant because the plaintiff contributed in some way to causing the accident.
As drivers today frequently cross state lines, it is exceedingly important to understand that different states embrace negligence systems that differ from the system that we have in South Carolina. For example, if you drive from South Carolina into Georgia you have crossed into a state that uses modified comparative negligence with a 50 percent bar rule. You will recall that South Carolina uses a 51 percent bar rule, so that means that getting into an accident on one side of border versus the other can potentially make a huge difference when a court is determining what a plaintiff can recover. For instance, suppose that you got into a car crash where you were 50 percent at fault and the other driver was also 50 percent at fault. If the crash occurred in South Carolina, then you would be able to recover 50 percent of your damages because you were not more negligent than the defendant. However, if that same crash happened just over the border in Georgia you would be completely barred from recovering anything because you were not less negligent than the defendant.
Speak to a Legal Expert
Proving negligence in a car accident can be very complicated and seeking counsel from an experienced car accident lawyer is always advisable. The car accident lawyers of the Elrod Pope Law Firm have years of experience handling car accident cases in South Carolina and would be happy to help you. Contact our office in either Rock Hill or Lake Wylie in order to schedule a free consultation.
Thomas E. Pope is a Personal Injury, Wrongful Death, and Medical Malpractice Attorney who practices in Rock Hill, Lake Wylie, and Lancaster, SC. He graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law, and has been practicing law for 31 years now. Thomas E. Pope believes in protecting the injured. Learn more about his experience here.