Sometimes when there is an auto accident, it is clear that one driver was to blame. Consider a drunk driver who runs through a stop sign and plows into the side of another vehicle. It does not take an expert in accident reconstruction to determine the drunk driver was solely at-fault for what happened.
But what about a situation where both drivers did something wrong? Let’s say that a drunk driver hit a vehicle that itself had run a red light. Both drivers were negligent. Yet the driver who ran the light suffered the brunt of the injuries in the impact. Could she still sue and recover damages from the drunk driver, even though she was also breaking traffic laws at the time?
Iowa’s Modified Comparative Fault Rules
Historically, courts in the United States followed a rule known as “contributory negligence” when faced with these situations. This rule provided that a plaintiff could not recover damages in a personal injury action if their own actions contributed to the accident in any way. In theory, the plaintiff might only be 1 percent liable for the accident, but they would still walk away with nothing.
Today, all but a handful of U.S. states have abandoned contributory negligence. Most states, including Iowa, now follow a different rule known as “comparative negligence” or comparative fault. Specifically, the Iowa Code employs what we call a modified comparative fault rule.
Here is how it works. You file a personal injury lawsuit against a negligent driver. The defendant, in turn, argues you were also at-fault. A jury will then look at the evidence and apportion fault to each of you as a percentage. For the same of illustration, our jury decides the defendant was 80 percent at-fault and you were 20 percent at-fault.
The jury’s next step would be to determine what damages, if any, you sustained in the auto accident. Damages include your out-of-pocket costs arising from the accident, such as your medical bills and lost wages. You may also be entitled to non-economic damages, which compensate you for your pain and suffering. In calculating damages, the jury is not supposed to consider comparative fault. To put it another way, the jury cannot say, “We think both sides are at-fault, so we award the plaintiff nothing.”
Instead, after the jury makes a proper calculation of damages, the judge will reduce the final award in proportion to your comparative fault. Say your total damages in our hypothetical accident was $60,000. If your comparative fault was 20 percent, the defendant would only have to pay you $48,000, which reflects his 80 percent of the liability for the accident.
Now, one critical thing to know about Iowa’s modified comparative fault rule: You will walk away with nothing if you were mostly at-fault. In other words, if your comparative fault is 51 percent or greater, then the defendant does not have to pay for any portion of your damages.
What If There Are Multiple Defendants or Third Parties?
Up to this point, we have discussed comparative fault under the assumption there were only two parties involved, one plaintiff and one defendant. But it is possible to have multiple co-defendants in a personal injury case. Similarly, there may be other third parties whose actions contributed to the accident but are not defendants in the lawsuit, perhaps because they have already settled with the plaintiff.
In these scenarios, the jury is still required to apportion fault among all responsible individuals, including any co-defendants and third parties. And if multiple defendants are found to bear 50 percent or more of the fault for an accident, they can be held “jointly and severally liable” under the Iowa Code. This means that each defendant can be forced to pay the entire amount of any award of economic damages.
If you are injured in an auto accident, it is important to seek out qualified legal advice as soon as possible. Iowa’s comparative fault rules give defendants every incentive to try and shift blame onto you for the accident. So if you need representation from an experienced auto accident attorney, contact the Telpner Peterson Law Firm, LLP, today to schedule a free consultation.