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When Multiple Parties Are at Fault: A Closer Look at Joint and Several Liability in Massachusetts

Massachusetts auto accident attorneyYou're at an intersection in Boston. You stop to look for oncoming traffic as you prepare to make a left turn when a car coming from behind you smashes into the rear of your car and pushes you across the center line.

A driver coming in the opposite direction and traveling well over the speed limit is unable to stop and you are hit a second time.  You sustain injuries and your medical costs are $200,000.

Two different drivers caused your injuries. You end up suing both drivers so your medical bills can be paid by the people who caused the accident and your injuries.

But who pays?  And how much does each pay?

When it comes to determining payment and apportionment of damages owed to an injured party, Massachusetts is considered a "pure joint and several liability" state. Under this theory of law, each defendant found at fault to any degree is responsible for the entire amount of damages owed an injured party, or plaintiff. So long as the accident victim is not more than 50 percent responsible for the accident that caused the injury, the defendant's percentage of fault will not alter this responsibility to pay until the injured party is paid all he is due.

Massachusetts Law and Liability in Accidents 

Massachusetts General Law chap. 231B, sec. 2 was enacted to address and clarify this issue.  The statute states, "in determining the pro rata shares of tortfeasors in the entire liability,... their relative degrees of fault shall not be considered."

A Boston car accident attorney knows that courts interpret this statute to mean that so long as the injured party is less than 51 percent responsible for the cause of the accident and the resulting harm, the defendants must pay damages to make the injured party whole.  Courts, echoing this statute, further detail that those payments need not necessarily be in the same proportion to the percentage of their fault established.

So even if one defendant is found to be only 30 percent at fault and the other 70 percent at fault, the 30 percent defendant is liable to pay 100 percent of the judgment if the 70 percent defendant cannot pay.   (A second suit between the defendants may arise between those parties, but the injured party will receive the damages owed him first and foremost.)

In the Boston intersection example above, several scenarios are possible. If parties cannot agree on how to resolve a claim, a lawsuit will be filed and the case brought to trial.  Jurors will hear the facts of the case from witnesses and ultimately determine how much responsibility lies with each defendant for causing the injuries to the accident victim and whether the accident victim was also partially at fault for the accident.  Finally, the jury will determine the amount of damages owed the accident victim.

If the injured party's car was lawfully in the intersection the jurors will likely assign zero fault to him. Given this example, this means the other two drivers then were determined together to be 100 percent responsible for the accident and 100 percent the cause of the injuries at issue.  They must pay damages of $200,000. If one of the defendant drivers is insolvent, the remaining defendant is on the hook for the entire amount, no matter what his percentage of fault. Even if one driver is 90 percent responsible and the other 10 percent, each is responsible for the entire sum of damages until it is paid.

If the jury determines that the injured party is 30 percent responsible for the cause of the accident and the injuries, and the other two drivers are found to be 25 percent and 45 percent responsible for causing the injuries, the two defendants are now liable for 70 percent of the total damages.  Mass. Gen, Law chap 231 s. 85, the comparative negligence statute, states that when a plaintiff is partially at fault for an accident that ultimately harms him, any damages owed to him will be reduced by the accident victim's percentage of fault.  In this scenario, the defendants must cover 70 percent of the total damages, or $140,000.

Mass. Gen. Law chap. 231B s. 2 requires, however, that this 70 percent figure is still to be paid in a manner consistent with the requirements that the payment by the defendants will be joint and several, no matter how the percentage of blame is parsed between the two. Each defendant is responsible for the whole amount of the damages owed the accident victim.

It is significant to note that per MGL chap 231B s. 2 that here, even though one defendant is only 25 percent at fault, and that percentage is lower than the percentage of responsibility assigned to the injured party himself, the 25 percent defendant must still participate in paying damages to the injured party.  Furthermore the 25 percent party will even be responsible for the entire amount if the other defendant cannot pay.

Courts Weigh in on Responsibility in Accidents

In Graci v. Damon, 6 Mass. App. Ct. 160 (1978), a case argued before the Massachusetts Appeals Court, illustrates this point.  A plaintiff was injured and a jury determined he was partially responsible for the accident that caused his own injury.  Several defendants were named in the suit, and a jury determined they were liable for the plaintiff's injuries in differing amounts.  One defendant was found only 5 percent liable.

This 5 percent defendant appealed to the court and argued that since his liability was far less than any other defendant and the plaintiff himself, he should not have to be responsible for up to the entire amount of damages as demanded by MGL chap. 231B s. 2.  The court disagreed. The Massachusetts Appeals Court firmly concluded that even though the 5 percent defendant had far less responsibility for the cause of the plaintiff's injuries, the theory of joint and several liability outlined in MGL chap. 231B s. 2 mandated he pay up to the full amount if able.  All defendants who in total were more than 50 percent liable for the plaintiff's injuries were responsible for the sum owed the plaintiff, no matter what small hand they had in the matter.

Massachusetts law protects an injured party who is hurt by multiple defendants by making sure that the injured party is paid the damages he is owed.  By mandating that judgments based upon liability are joint and several amongst defendants, Massachusetts law does its best to ensure this outcome.

When an injured party succeeds in a lawsuit against multiple defendants, all defendants are responsible that the injured party is paid what he is owed, regardless of their degree of fault for causing harm to the victim.  Once liability and damages are determined, MGL chap. 231B s. 2 ensures that someone injured by the negligence of others will not have to suffer further because one defendant is insolvent.  It is not the injured party's further misfortune if one defendant cannot pay.  Under Massachusetts' joint and several liability law, Massachusetts law does its best to help accident victims get paid what they are due.

Atty. Mark Bixby is a personal injury lawyer at the Law Offices of Mark E. Salomone, serving Springfield and throughout Massachusetts. If you or a loved one has been injured, contact our law firm today.

Atty. Mark Bixby