Comparative Fault in Missouri
In the world of personal injury law, two of the most common types of cases involve negligence and premises liability.
Negligence occurs when one party is harmed due to another party’s failure to use ordinary care. In Missouri, the injured party, or Plaintiff, must prove each of the following four elements to succeed on a negligence claim: 1) that the Defendant owed a duty of care to Plaintiff; 2) that the Defendant breached that duty of care; 3) that said breach of duty caused harm or injury to Plaintiff; and 4) that Plaintiff suffered damages as a result.
Premises liability refers to a land or property owner’s responsibility to ensure said land or property is safe for invitees and licensees. In Missouri, similar to negligence, the Plaintiff must prove each of the following four elements to succeed on a premises liability claim: 1) that the property owner, or Defendant, owed a duty of care to Plaintiff; 2) that the Defendant breached that duty of care; 3) that said breach of duty caused harm or injury to Plaintiff; and 4) that Plaintiff suffered damages as a result.
In many instances, liability (fault) is clear and the Defendant is 100% to blame. For an example of this in terms of negligence, let’s consider a car accident. The Plaintiff is stopped at a red light, when the Defendant approaches from behind. Defendant fails to slow down and stop in time and crashes into the back of Plaintiff’s vehicle, causing injury to Plaintiff. In this example, Defendant’s actions alone were the cause of the accident, as well as Plaintiff’s injuries. For a different example in terms of premises liability, let’s look at a slip and fall. The Plaintiff is walking into a convenience store owned by the Defendant. Defendant just got done mopping the floor, but did not have any caution or wet floor signs put out. Plaintiff slips on a wet floor and falls to the ground, sustaining injuries in the process. Let’s assume in this hypothetical that there is no rain outside, and the freshly mopped floor is the only reason the Plaintiff slipped and fell. In this example, much like the previously mentioned car accident, the Defendant is solely responsible for the Plaintiff’s injuries.
Sometimes, however, liability is not so clear. What happens when the Plaintiff’s own actions contributed to the accident? Can they still bring a suit and recover anything for the injuries sustained? The short answer is yes. In Missouri, we are what is known as a comparative fault state. This means that if you are injured in an accident, you can still bring a claim against the Defendant, even if your own negligence was a contributing factor. Under comparative fault, any fault charged to the Plaintiff shall be taken out of the amount awarded for damages.
To better understand this principle, let’s look back at our two previous hypothetical examples. This time, Plaintiff is approaching a stop sign at a four-way stop heading North. Defendant is approaching the same intersection from Plaintiff’s right, heading West. Plaintiff is the first vehicle to come to a complete stop and then begins to accelerate through the intersection. Defendant, believing they were there first, also enters the intersection and crashes into the passenger side of Plaintiff’s vehicle. At trial, the jury awards Plaintiff $20,000. However, the jury also feels that Plaintiff had enough time to try and avoid Defendant, and finds that Plaintiff was 25% at fault. The Plaintiff is therefore, awarded the remaining 75% of the $20,000 in damages, or $15,000.
This same principle would also apply to the previously mentioned slip and fall example. Let’s say this time, after mopping, the Defendant did in fact put out a caution/wet floor sign. However, the sign was placed in a location on the floor that was not near the wet area, and the Plaintiff slipped and fell. At trial, the jury awards $20,000 to Plaintiff. However, the jury believes Plaintiff should have still seen the caution sign and known there was a possibility the floor was wet. Therefore, the jury finds that Plaintiff was 50% at fault. In this instance, Plaintiff’s final award is $10,000 in damages.
Not every state is a comparative fault state. If you are injured in an accident and have questions about what you are entitled to, please give the attorneys at Bollwerk & Tatlow a call or email me directly at [email protected].