Picture this unlikely scenario: An intoxicated motorist is driving his vehicle at speeds well in excess of the speed limit (let’s say, he’s traveling at 100 mph in a 35 mph zone). As the unsafe motorist approaches a downtown intersection, a jay-walking pedestrian begins to cross the street when it is clearly not her turn (the brilliant-orange “don’t walk” hand is flashing and unmistakable). She has her face buried in the daily newspaper and is wearing headphones, unaware of what’s happening around her. What happens next, as you might have expected, is that the speeding, drunken motorist collides with the inattentive pedestrian, causing her significant injuries and tens of thousands of dollars in hospital bills.
This hypothetical accident was intended to illustrate the legal problem of the “foolhardy” plaintiff–the individual who suffers an injury at the hands of another, though her inattentive, negligent behavior also has contributed to the damage. In layman’s terms, both the motorist and the pedestrian are at fault here. The driver should understand that operating a vehicle at high rates of speed while intoxicated is unsafe and endangers the public. Similarly, the pedestrian should know that she must obey traffic signals and should pay attention to her surroundings as she crosses the street. Thus, both the motorist and the pedestrian have a “duty” to act as a reasonably responsible driver and pedestrian respectively. Under this scenario, however, where both actors to this dramatic collision have breached their duties to act reasonably, causing this accident, who is responsible? Is the pedestrian permitted to recover damages (money) despite having negligently contributed to this accident and her resulting injuries?
Prior to 1980, Louisiana followed the traditional common-law approach to solving the issue of the “foolhardy plaintiff”–a plaintiff whose negligence contributed to his injury. This common-law approach was known as contributory negligence and operated as a total bar to recovery in a negligence action. While it sounds unduly restrictive of a plaintiffs’ ability to bring and maintain actions for injuries they suffered, this comparative negligence regime required more than just showing that the plaintiff contributed in some way to the injury–instead, the plaintiff had to be legally negligent. They must have had a standard of care (a duty), which, when breached, caused and contributed to their injury and was within the scope of foreseeable risk.