ProfessorMelissa A. Hale
CaseCast™ – "What you need to know"
Brief Fact Summary. Defendant hit Plaintiff when Plaintiff attempted to cross three lanes of oncoming traffic in order to enter a service station. Both parties were negligent. The trial court held that Plaintiff was barred from recovery by her own contributory negligence.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. The doctrine of comparative negligence assesses liability in direct proportion to fault.
Issue. Should the affirmative defense, contributory negligence, give way to a system of comparative negligence, which assesses liability in direct proportion to fault?
Held. Yes. Judgment reversed.
* The doctrine of comparative negligence assesses liability in direct proportion to fault. It is preferable to the “all-or-nothing” doctrine of contributory negligence from the point of view of logic, practical experience and fundamental justice. Contributory negligence is inequitable in its operation because it fails to distribute responsibility in proportion to fault. Juries often allow recovery in cases of contributory negligence, and the compromise in the jury room does result in some diminution of the damages because of plaintiff’s fault. Twenty-five states have abrogated the “all-or-nothing” rule of contributory negligence and have enacted in its place general apportionment statutes to assess liability in proportion to fault.
* Section 1714 does not preclude the court from adopting a system of comparative negligence. It was not the intention of the Legislature in enacting section 1714 of the Civil Code to insulate the matters therein expressed from further judicial development.
* There are some concerns with the adoption of a system of comparative negligence. The most serious concern arises when all responsible parties are not brought before the court. Problems of contribution and indemnity lurk in the background. A second problem involves the administration of fact finding. Assigning a specific percentage number can be difficult in the face of hard facts. A third area of concern is with the doctrines of last clear chance and assumption of risk. When true comparative negligence is adopted, then the doctrine of last clear chance is not used because it will only give a windfall to Plaintiff. The adoption of a system of comparative negligence should entail the merger of the defense of assumption of risk into the general scheme of assessment of liability in proportion to fault, in those cases where the form of assumption of risk is no more than a form of contributory negligence. The final concern is with willful misconduct.
* Two of the indicated areas of concern (multiple parties and willful misconduct) are not present in this case. These areas will be better decided in future cases. This case is to be viewed as a first step in what is deemed to be a proper and just direction.
* California adopts the “pure” form of comparative negligence as apposed to the “50-percent” system. Under the pure form of comparative negligence, liability is apportioned in direct proportion to fault in all cases. Under the 50-percent system, liability is apportioned based on fault up to the point at which the plaintiff’s negligence is equal to or greater than that of the defendant. Under the 50-percent system, when Plaintiff’s negligence is equal to or greater than Defendant’s, Plaintiff is barred from recovery.
* The system of comparative negligence should apply in all cases in which the trial has not yet begun.
Concurrence. Justice Mosk and Justice McComb concurred and dissented in part.
* (Justice Mosk) Justice Mosk did not agree that comparative negligence should apply in all cases in which the trial has not yet begun.
* (Justice McComb) Justice McComb thought that section 1714 codified the common law rule of contributory negligence, which could only be displaced by other legislation.
Discussion. This case is the precedent for comparative negligence. The affirmative defense of contributory negligence is no longer used in California. California adopts a “pure” form of comparative negligence.