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Background

In North Carolina, there are many laws governing the rights of injured victims of another person's negligence. Contributory negligence North Carolina's legal system to establish personal injury damage awards at trial. North Carolina is one of only 5 states, including Washington D.C. that follow a "pure" contributory negligence rule. This law is used to determine whether or not a plaintiff may recover from the person who did them harm. The basis for this law comes from an English common law principle that a person who is negligent in causing harm to another should not be held responsible for those actions if the injured person contributed to their own injury, even if only slightly. Some states apply a form of comparative negligence, where the judge or jury apportions a percentage of fault to the defendant or plaintiff, depending on the facts. Under most comparative negligence systems, an injured person may still recover something if the defendant(s) caused the majority of the circ

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Examples of insurance tactics

Sometimes our contributory negligence laws are used by insurance adjusters to deny legitimate personal injury claims. A scenario I see often arises when a plaintiff drives through an intersection under a green light and is hit on the side of their car by someone running a red light. If the impact occurs towards the front of the plaintiff's vehicle, the insurance companies usually "accepts" the claim as legitimate. If the impact occurs toward the middle to rear of the plaintiff's vehicle, the insurance companies often "deny" the claim. The argument made by the insurance company is that the plaintiff had enough time to respond and react to the defendant running the red light, since the impact occurred toward the middle or rear of the plaintiff's car. However, a plaintiff generally expects that he or she can proceed safely through an intersection with a green light, and may not anticipate a car running a red light.

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Problem areas

As the attorney for the plaintiff in this case, we may be able to plead the "last clear chance" doctrine, but by doing that, we must admit that the plaintiff put himself in a position of peril. In this case, if a jury agrees with the defense attorney that the client could have done something to minimize the damages from this wreck, or in other words, by failing to react fast enough, the plaintiff "contributed" to their injury, the jury may find that the plaintiff is entitled to recover nothing. If the jury finds the plaintiff 1% responsible for the injuries, the jury can return a zero verdict. This is a bad enough result if property damage is the only issue in the case, but really becomes problematic when a family has lost a loved one, or when the plaintiff suffered severe injuries, and has piles of medical bills to pay.

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In summary

Our legislature is constantly reviewing the laws of the state to determine which direction North Carolina wants to go. Contributory Negligence is frequently on the agenda, and we may see a change in this system sometime in the future. For now however, it is extremely important for injured victims to be very careful when talking to insurance companies without an attorney if there is any chance that an insurance adjuster could deny a legitimate claim because of a technical argument of contributory negligence. If you or a loved one have been hurt in a car wreck, give us a call and we can discuss your legal rights with you, and help you avoid some of the tricks the insurance industry uses to deny legitimate personal injury claims.