Plaintiff and defendant were involved in a motor vehicle collision. Plaintiff sued, and the jury found that both parties were found to be at fault. The jury found for defendant. Plaintiff appealed, arguing that Tennessee should recognize the doctrine of comparative negligence, which would not bar his recovery even though he was contributorily negligent.
Under the comparative negligence doctrine, the injured party may recover in tort law as long as their negligence remains less than that of the defendant’s.
Henry Douglas McIntyre (plaintiff) left a truck stop parking lot early one morning. As he entered the highway, his pickup truck was struck by Clifford Balentine’s (defendant) tractor. McIntyre, who had been drinking the previous evening, had a blood alcohol level of .17 percent at the time of the accident. Balentine, meanwhile, had been traveling in excess of the posted speed limit. McIntyre was severely injured as a result of the collision and brought suit against Balentine for negligence. Balentine alleged that McIntyre was contributorily negligent because he had driven while still intoxicated. At trial, the jury found both McIntyre and Balentine to be equally at fault and ruled in favor of the latter. McIntyre appealed, alleging that the trial court erred in refusing to provide a jury instruction on the doctrine of comparative negligence.
Whether an injured party who was contributorily negligent may still recover damages?
Yes, an injured party, although contributorily negligent, may still recover as long as their negligence remains less than that of the defendant’s in this jurisdiction. The injured party’s damages will be reduced by the percentage of the total negligence attributable to them. The judgment of the court of appeals is reversed on the issue of comparative negligence. The case is remanded for a new trial.
The court reviews the history of the contributory negligence doctrine, tracing it back to the case of Butterfield v. Forrester. Tennessee law has traditionally followed the rule that a plaintiff is completely barred from recovery if he or she is found to be contributorily negligent. At the time of this case, however, forty-five states had adopted comparative fault in some form.
States that have adopted comparative negligence have either “pure” or “modified” schemes. In a “pure” comparative negligence jurisdiction, the plaintiff’s recovery is reduced by the percentage of fault attributable to them. In a “modified” comparative negligence jurisdiction, the plaintiff’s recovery is reduced by the percentage of fault attributed to them as long as the plaintiff’s fault is not equal to or greater than the defendant’s. For instance, a plaintiff could be barred from recovery if she is found to be fifty or fifty-one percent at fault for the accident in a “modified” comparative negligence state.
The Tennessee Supreme Court decides that it is time to abandon the “outmoded and unjust” doctrine of contributory negligence. In its place, the court adopts a system of comparative fault. Here, the jury was not given the benefit of proper instructions before delivering their verdict since the contributory negligence doctrine has now been rendered obsolete under Tennessee law. Therefore, a new trial is warranted.