When a car accident occurs, after determining if there were injuries and their extent, one of the common questions is, whose fault was it?”
In Missouri, as in many states, the answer is not always simple. Missouri follows a principle known as “comparative fault.” The best way to explain this is by an example. Suppose driver Jones is traveling too close to the vehicle and front of him, and when that vehicle stops, Jones has to slam on his brakes and make a sudden stop. Suppose driver Smith is behind Jones, and is also following too closely. He stops quickly, but not in time to avoid hitting and injuring Jones.
Who’s at fault for this accident? The answer may be that both drivers have some fault. If Jones brings a lawsuit for his injuries against Smith, the jury would be required to “compare” the fault of the two drivers. This means essentially that the jury would assess Smith’s fault at between 0 and 100 percent, and carry out the same calculation for the injured person, the plaintiff Jones. The total for the fault calculation has to equal 100 percent, but the combination can be 90 %–10%, 50%–50%, or any other combination that totals 100 percent.
So suppose that the jury decides that the two drivers are each 50 percent at fault. Under that set of facts, what is the amount of Jones’ damage award? The answer is that whatever amount the jury decides he has suffered in damages, the judge would reduce that amount by 50 percent. Again, to keep the example simple, if Jones suffered $500,000 in damages (wage loss, medical expenses, pain and suffering, etc.), his award would be reduced 50 percent by the judge to $250,000. The rationale for this scheme of comparative fault is two-fold. First, merely because someone was partially at fault for his injuries, if someone else also caused them the wrongdoer should not escape responsibility. Second, the wrongdoer should not have to pay for that part of the damage award that was caused by the injured person.
Missouri’s law is called “pure” comparative fault. This means that a plaintiff, in theory, should be able to recover that percentage of his or her damages that was caused by another negligent party-whatever the percentage. Other states are much more restrictive than Missouri, and have systems called “modified” comparative fault. In some states, a plaintiff may recover the percentage of his damages not caused by his own negligence; but, if that plaintiff is more than 50 percent at fault he recovers absolutely nothing. Some states have an archaic system holding that if a plaintiff has any fault in the accident, he recovers nothing. Thankfully, this is an extremely small minority of states.