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Do Tennessee Courts Still Apply “Contributory Negligence”?


In 1992, the Tennessee Supreme Court ended its longstanding rule of “contributory negligence” in personal injury cases. Contributory negligence meant that a plaintiff could not recover any damages if he or she was found to have contributed, even in a small way, to the underlying accident. For example, if the defendant was driving drunk and slammed into the plaintiff’s car, the defendant could still avoid liability under contributory negligence if there was evidence the plaintiff was speeding at the time.

In place of contributory negligence, the state Supreme Court adopted what is known as the “modified comparative negligence” rule. Still in effect today, comparative negligence allows a plaintiff to recover some damages so long as he or she is not more than 49 percent responsible for the accident. But any damages are reduced in proportion to the share of the plaintiff’s comparative fault.

Tennessee Court Affirms Jury Verdict Reached Under Mexican State Law

Unfortunately, if your personal injury claim involves the law of another state–or country–contributory negligence may still be applied by Tennessee courts. Consider this long-running product liability case from Davidson County. Seventeen years ago, a Mexican citizen was killed while driving a vehicle equipped with tires manufactured by a Tennessee company. The decedent’s family subsequently sued the tire manufacturer in Tennessee state court, alleging a defective tread caused the tire to blow out, which in turn led to the deadly accident.

The case spent several years in procedural limbo, as the Tennessee and Mexican courts disagreed over who should hear the case. Eventually the family’s complaint was tried before a Tennessee jury. However, the parties agreed that while the procedural rules of the Tennessee court would apply, the substantive law of the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi, the Mexican state where the accident occurred, would govern the outcome of the case.

This was critical because under San Luis Potosi’s Civil Code, “He who is acting unlawfully or against good customs causes damage to another, is obliged to repair, unless he proves that the damage was the result of inexcusable negligence or fault of the victim.” In other words, San Luis Potosi continues to follow a contributory negligence rule, although it is not referred to by that term. There is no allowance for comparative fault. And unlike Tennessee, Mexican law does not recognize either “strict liability” in defective product cases or permit the award of punitive damages.

A jury ultimately returned a verdict in favor of the defense. The plaintiffs appealed, but the Court of Appeals upheld the jury’s decision. Most of the appeal addressed evidentiary rulings by the trial judge. But the plaintiffs also challenged the trial judge instructing the jury on contributory negligence. The appeals court said there was nothing wrong with the instruction, however, reiterating the parties agreed at the outset to try the case under Mexican civil law.

Do You Need Legal Advice Following a Car Accident?

The law governing a particular personal injury claim often depends on where the accident occurred or whether one of the parties resides. This is why it is important to work with an experienced Knoxville personal injury lawyer who can guide you and your family through the complex litigation process. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, if you or a loved one have been injured in an accident and require immediate legal assistance.



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