Most residents of Massachusetts understand that a person can recover damages in a car accident or other kind of mishap that was caused by the negligence of another person. But what happens if more than one person is at fault for the accident?

As the common law developed in England and then traveled to the colonies, this situation was covered by the doctrine of contributory negligence. If the plaintiff was partially at fault for the car accident, the claim would be barred even if the degree of fault assignable to the defendant was far greater. In other words, a plaintiff who may have been 5 percent at fault could not recover damages from a defendant who may have been 95 percent at fault. The unfairness of this rule bothered judges, commentators and plaintiffs’ attorneys well into the 20th century. During the middle years of the century, state legislatures began to revise the rule by substituting the rule of comparative negligence.

The Massachusetts legislature was no exception. The legislature adopted a variation of comparative fault called modified comparative fault. The statute states that the contributory fault of the plaintiff shall not bar an action based upon negligence so long as the plaintiff’s degree of fault is less than the defendant’s degree of fault. If the plaintiff’s degree of negligence exceeds that of the defendant, the claim will be barred in its entirety. If the plaintiff’s share of negligence is less than that of the defendant, the plaintiff’s damages will be reduced in proportion to the share of fault assigned to the plaintiff.

When the jury returns its verdict, it is required to determine damages for each party and to specify the degree to which each party – all plaintiffs and all defendants – is at fault. The judge will then determine how much each person must pay, and judgment is entered accordingly.