February 12, 2024

The Role of Contributory Negligence in North Carolina Personal Injury Cases

Contributory negligence is an age-old legal doctrine that may sound as foreign as ancient Latin to many. Yet for North Carolinians, understanding this principle can mean the difference between a successful personal injury or car accident claim and walking away empty-handed. As one of the few states adhering to this strict doctrine, North Carolina’s legal landscape presents a unique set of challenges for personal injury victims. But what is contributory negligence, and how does it affect those who have been injured in North Carolina?

An Overview of the Doctrine of Contributory Negligence

Contributory negligence is a legal principle that bars a plaintiff from recovering in a lawsuit if they are found to be even slightly at fault (like just 1% at fault) for their own injury. This doctrine stands in stark contrast to the comparative negligence system employed by most states, which allows a plaintiff to recover damages reduced by their percentage of fault.

North Carolina’s Strict Application of Contributory Negligence

North Carolina’s approach to contributory negligence is rigorous. Under this rule, if an individual involved in an accident is found to bear any amount of responsibility for their own injuries, they may be barred from recovering any compensation from other at-fault parties. Consider, for instance, a pedestrian who crosses the street while distracted by their phone and steps into a manhole which was missing its cover. Even though the manhole should have had a cover, the pedestrian might still be considered contributory negligent for failing to pay attention and thus ineligible for compensation.

The Last Clear Chance Exception in North Carolina

However, North Carolina law introduces an exception to the contributory negligence rule: the “last clear chance” doctrine. This principle allows a contributorily negligent plaintiff to recover damages if the defendant had the last opportunity to avoid the accident but failed to do so.

Imagine a scenario where a pedestrian steps onto the road without looking, and a driver sees the pedestrian from a distance but fails to stop or swerve because the driver is distracted by texting. Under the “last clear chance” doctrine, the pedestrian, despite being partially at fault, may still have the chance to recover damages because the driver had the final clear opportunity to prevent the accident.

Gross Negligence: Overcoming Contributory Negligence

Another important exception is the concept of gross negligence. Gross negligence occurs when a defendant’s conduct is so reckless that it constitutes a conscious disregard of, or indifference to, the rights and safety of the injured person. In certain cases, gross negligence can supersede contributory negligence.

For example, if an intoxicated driver speeds through a red light at an intersection and collides with a car that that was travelling marginally over the speed limit, the intoxicated driver’s behavior may be seen as gross negligence. In this case, even if the other driver was slightly at fault for speeding, the gross negligence of the intoxicated driver overcomes the contributory negligence, allowing the slightly speeding driver to recover.


Contributory negligence in North Carolina is a unique doctrine that can significantly influence personal injury cases. While the principle may seem stringent, understanding its intricacies, including the exceptions of “last clear chance” and “gross negligence,” can shed light on the opportunities and constraints of personal injury claims in North Carolina.

This information is provided by Harris Legal for general benefit, education, and interest. If you have a specific legal question, you should consult with an attorney.