Personal Injury Lawyer Tips on Rhode Island’s Pure Comparative Negligence Statuteby Mike Bottaro (Bottaro Law Firm, LLC)
As a Rhode Island personal injury lawyer, I deal with issues of comparative negligence on a routine basis. Consumers should understand that comparative negligence is a system to assign fault when more than one person acts negligently. Negligence is a person’s unintentional failure to comply with a legally imposed duty or standard of care. Under a system of comparative negligence, a personal injury victim or property owner that is partially to blame for causing their injury or loss may only receive a portion of the compensation they would otherwise receive for their injury. The recovery will be diminished by the judge or jury’s finding of the proportion of fault between the two parties. This approach is encouraged since a personal injury victim that is only partially at fault should be able to secure some recovery for their loss, but should not gain a profit from an accident they are partially to blame for causing.
States have taken multiple approaches to comparative negligence. Experienced Rhode Island personal injury lawyers know that R.I. Gen. Laws § 9-20-4 establish Rhode Island as a pure comparative negligence state. This approach assigns a percentage of fault to each person involved in an accident, and awards the personal injury victim a percentage of the awarded damages based upon the other person’s percentage of fault. This approach makes sure the personal injury victim receives some compensation as long as the other person or people involved were at least partially at fault. Some states, such as Massachusetts, apply a modified comparative negligence rule, using a 51% rule. This approach is like a pure comparative negligence approach, but with a certain cut-off point. Massachusetts personal injury lawyers need to understand that if a personal injury victim’s negligence is found to be greater than the negligence of the other person involved, or 51%, the injured party will not be able to recover any damages for their injury. Mass.Gen.Laws Ann. Ch. 231, § 85. Other states use a 50% modified comparative negligence rule, meaning if two people are equally at fault, then neither one of them can recover damages.
The distinction between pure and modified comparative negligence rules can be very important, as was demonstrated in Najarian v. National Amusements, Inc., 768 A. 2d 1253 (R.I. 2001). In this case, an East Providence, Rhode Island resident injured herself in a Seekonk, Massachusetts movie theater. The East Providence personal injury victim was found to be 60% negligent for her injury and the theater was found 40% negligent by a Rhode Island jury. The East Providence personal injury victim’s lawyer initially achieved an estimated $15,000 in damages and interest under Rhode Island law, which was applied during the trial and her appeal. However, the Rhode Island Supreme Court determined that Massachusetts law should have been applied to the case, so the East Providence personal injury victim ended up receiving no recovery at all.
As a point of interest, Rhode Island does not apply comparative negligence to rescuers. This means a person that voluntarily attempts to save someone’s life can receive full damages for their injuries received during a rescue and may not be considered comparably negligent for injuring a victim during a rescue, as long as the rescuer does not act recklessly. See Ouellette v. Carde, 612 A. 2d 687 (R.I. 1992), Skaling v. Aetna Ins. Co., 799 A. 2d 997 (R.I. 2002).