Contributory Negligence

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Definition: Contributory Negligence

Quick Summary of Contributory Negligence

Contributory negligence is a common law doctrine which states if a person’s injury or loss is caused by their own negligence they are not entitled to receive compensation for their loss. Only five states continue to use their doctrine to determine damages in an injury claim.

Most states have replaced the system of contributory negligence, which was leftover from British common law, with comparative negligence which allows claimants to recover compensation to the degree of their fault. For instance, under comparative negligence, the amount of the plaintiff’s award is reduced by the extent to which the plaintiff’s conduct contributed to the harm suffered.

In the five states which use a pure contributory negligence system, this serves as a complete bar to recovery in an injury claim for any party who is found to have contributed to their injuries at all. The states that still use pure contributory negligence are Alabama, Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina; and the District of Columbia.

Until 1945 it was a complete defence in the UK, to a claim of Negligence that the claimant was himself to blame, even slightly, for the loss or damage he suffered. As a result, a person who was badly and obviously wronged could end up losing out in a tort action. The Law reform contributory negligence act (1945) eliminates the defence of contributory negligence, and in its place gives the courts the power to reduce the award of damages in proportion to the claimant’s share of the blame.

What is the dictionary definition of Contributory Negligence?

Dictionary Definition

n. a doctrine of common law that if a person was injured in part due to his/her own negligence (his/her negligence “contributed” to the accident), the injured party would not be entitled to collect any damages (money) from another party who supposedly caused the accident. Under this rule, a badly injured person who was only slightly negligent could not win in court against a very negligent defendant. If Joe Tosspot was driving drunk and speeding and Angela Comfort was going 25 m.p.h. but six inches over the centre-line, most likely Angela would be precluded from any recovery (receiving any money for injuries or damages) from a car crash. The possible unfair results have led some juries to ignore the rule and, in the past few decades, most states have adopted a comparative negligence test in which the relative percentages of negligence by each person are used to determine damage recovery (how much money would be paid to the injured person).

Full Definition of Contributory Negligence

Contributory negligence is a common-law defence to a claim based on negligence, an action in tort. It applies to cases where plaintiffs have, through their own negligence, contributed to causing the damages they incurred as a result of defendants’ negligence. For example, a pedestrian crosses a road carelessly and is hit by a driver who is also driving carelessly. Contributory negligence is distinguishable from contribution, which is a claim brought by one or more defendants seeking to have a third party pay some or all of any money damages awarded to a plaintiff.

Scope Of The Defense

At common law, contributory negligence was originally an absolute defence. If a defendant successfully raised the defence, he would be able to avoid liability for the tort completely. This could lead to injustice where the negligence of a plaintiff or claimant was slight. The defence of contributory negligence would prevent them from recovering any damages at all.

Most jurisdictions in the United States have modified the doctrine, either by court decision or by legislation and have accordingly changed the name to comparative negligence wherein, rather than awarding no damages at all, the jury reduces the compensation to be awarded by a percentage reflecting the degree to which the plaintiff’s negligence contributed to cause the damages. In England and Wales, the Law Reform (Contributory Negligence) Act 1945 had a similar effect (the similar, current doctrine being termed Acts of the claimant). Maryland, Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia retain contributory negligence as a complete defence to negligence.

Burden Of proof

In some jurisdictions the defendant has to prove the negligence of the plaintiff or claimant; in others, the burden is on the plaintiff or claimant to disprove their own negligence. The tortfeasor may still be held liable if he had the last clear chance to prevent the injury (the last clear chance doctrine).


Contributory negligence is generally a defence to tort claims arising out of the negligence of the defendant. In contrast, where the defendant’s conduct amounts to malicious or intentional wrongdoing as opposed to ordinary negligence the defence does not apply. In England and Wales, it is not a defence to the torts of conversion or trespass to goods and in the US it is not a defence to an intentional tort.


“Contributory Negligence” was the title and subject of a circa 1982 poem by Attila the Stockbroker, a UK performance poet, protesting at the mere fine given to a rapist after the high court judge determined that the women concerned in some way provoked or contributed to the rape.

Cite Term

To help you cite our definitions in your bibliography, here is the proper citation layout for the three major formatting styles, with all of the relevant information filled in.

Page URL
Modern Language Association (MLA):
Contributory Negligence. Payroll & Accounting Heaven Ltd. September 27, 2021
Chicago Manual of Style (CMS):
Contributory Negligence. Payroll & Accounting Heaven Ltd. (accessed: September 27, 2021).
American Psychological Association (APA):
Contributory Negligence. Retrieved September 27, 2021, from website:

Definition Sources

Definitions for Contributory Negligence are sourced/syndicated and enhanced from:

  • A Dictionary of Economics (Oxford Quick Reference)
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Accounting
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Business & Management

This glossary post was last updated: 27th April, 2020 | 5 Views.