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Contributory negligence and the ‘last clear chance’ doctrine

On Behalf of | Aug 16, 2023 | personal injury |

Maryland is one of a handful of states that still follows a traditional legal rule known as contributory negligence. Under this rule, a plaintiff cannot recover compensation in a personal injury lawsuit if their own negligence contributed to the accident in which they were injured.

This case can lead to results that seem harsh and unfair. In one infamous case,  a driver stopped at a stop sign and looked both ways before turning onto a busy street at night, where they were struck by another car that was speeding and had its headlights turned off. The first driver was injured, but the court reasoned that their failure to see the speeding car had contributed to the accident, and therefore they could not hold the other driver liable for their damages.

Not every case is as extreme as the one described above, but contributory negligence is a common defense in Maryland personal injury claims. A plaintiff must show that the defendant’s negligence caused their damages, but if the defendant can show that the plaintiff was also negligent, they may be able to defeat the claim.

The ‘last clear chance’ doctrine

There are exceptions and ways to counter a contributory negligence defense. One way is through arguing that the “last clear chance” doctrine should apply.

The “last clear chance” doctrine was developed by courts that were looking for ways to mitigate the harshness of the contributory negligence rule. They ruled that contributory negligence shouldn’t bar a plaintiff from recovery if the defendant had a chance to stop the accident but failed to do so.

For example, a court might apply the doctrine in a case like the one we discussed above if it found that the defendant could have avoided hitting the plaintiff’s car had they only applied the brakes or sounded their horn.

To a family coping with the aftermath of a serious accident, these legal concepts may seem quite abstract and unrealistic, but they can make the difference between winning a case or losing one.

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