Fleet Feet Women’s Safety Clinic, April 3, 2017

On April 3, 2017 I was honored to help host the “Women’s Safety Clinic” held at Fleet Feet Sports in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  This was a great opportunity for members of the running community to meet with members of law enforcement, an attorney, and other area runners and cyclists to learn more about personal safety while enjoying the roads in our community.

In addition to myself, we were joined by officers John Morris and Katie Paterson of the Winston-Salem Police Department, Stacy Battjes, Director of Training Programs at Fleet Feet, and Robyn McElwee, co-owner of Crazy Running.   My role, as the attorney, was to educate our guests about the legal considerations runners and cyclists should keep in mind when sharing the roads with cars.

As often happens when I speak with groups, or when consulting with my own clients, I find that people are always surprised to learn about North Carolina’s “contributory negligence” rule and the dire effects it can have on your personal injury claim.  As is typical, when I got to the portion of my talk regarding “contributory negligence” I could see eyes open wider, and hands going up to ask me how North Carolina could have such an unfair law in place.

SO…. WHAT IS CONTRIBUTORY NEGLIGENCE, AND WHY IS IT SO BAD? 

North Carolina is one of the only remaining states in the U.S. that still follows the strict doctrine of “contributory negligence” – which says that an injured person can be completely barred from recovery if he or she is partially at fault.  Yes… this means that in North Carolina you could be involved in an accident in which the other driver is 99% at fault, and you are only 1% at fault, and you would be legally barred from receiving any type of recovery at all.  Most every other state in the U.S. has some form of “comparative negligence” which would still allow an injured person some proportional compensation for their injuries, even if they were partially at fault themselves.    While there are some legal exceptions to the contributory negligence rule, there is always the risk that your case could be completely tossed out of court if the judge or jury decides that you were even 1% at fault for the injuries you suffered.

As you can imagine, insurance companies love this draconian law that North Carolina has clung to while every other state has progressed.  Unless fault is very clear cut in a given case, you can always expect to hear the insurance company bring up the specter of “contributory negligence” during settlement negotiations.  They know this harsh rule, and it’s potential to completely nix your claim, is going to lower the value that your case might otherwise have.  It’s a great negotiating tool (for them) that insurance companies always have in their pocket.

When people ask me why such a rule still exists in North Carolina, my answer is always something like this:  Our laws are written by our elected legislators and upheld and interpreted by our elected and appointed judges.  Laws can be, and often are, changed as times change.  For instance, the discriminatory Jim Crow laws that North Carolina clung to for more than a century were swept away in the 1960’s and 70’s with the civil rights movement .  Some laws take longer to change than others, and contributory negligence is apparently one of those laws.  In my opinion, it all comes down to the role of money and influence with our lawmakers.  Insurance companies are well organized and lobby hard to keep the rules tilted in their favor.  While Plaintiff’s attorneys, civil liberties groups, and other “citizen advocate” type groups are organized and do lobby… my opinion is that they don’t have the money or the clout to influence lawmakers the way the multi-billion dollar insurance industry can.

 

WHAT CAN YOU OR I DO?

My answer is always the same on this.  Be informed and be heard!

Bad laws can stay on the books for decades, even centuries, if the public is generally unaware that they exist.  The reason I always see that surprised look on faces when I bring up the subject of “contributory negligence” is because folks are generally unaware such a law exists.  The insurance companies rely on people’s ignorance of this law to keep it alive year after year, even as it has been struck off the books in virtually every other state.  Generally, the only people who really know about this law and how harmful it can be, are the injured folks who have walked out of the courtroom with nothing because of it.  We shouldn’t wait around to be personally affected before we take action to make change.  Which leads me to the next part of the answer….

Become active!  Let your state Congressperson and/or Senator know that this is an issue you are concerned about.  You will never meet a personal injury attorney who hasn’t had a bad experience because of the contributory negligence rule.  When I have had clients who were burned by this rule, I always tell them the same thing: “Write your congressman”.  This may sound trite, but I truly believe that while big money has a major influence on politics, it does not win the day.  When all is said and done… your representatives have to have your votes to keep their jobs.  Call them.  Write them.  If they ignore you, tell you they don’t care, or tell you that they side with big insurance… then you know what do!  Be heard at the voting booth!  But most importantly… tell your friends!  Persuade other people to care and become active as well.  This is how grassroots political movements happen.  Your representatives will listen if enough of their constituents reach out to them.

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