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If you have been in an accident and feel partially responsible, you may still be eligible for compensation. According to Washington state law, your right to damages depends upon the way a court assesses fault and proximate cause.

Understanding these terms and how they relate to personal injury claims may help you better plan your case.

Measuring fault

Civil law relies on the belief that we all have an obligation to avoid harming others. We exist under the expectation that we will exercise reasonable care for the well-being of those around us. In an accident, fault is the failure to exercise this degree of care — whether by actions taken or actions we fail to take. Of course, we all act carelessly at some point in our lives, but our careless actions do not always cause harm to others. At other times, our actions cause harm to others despite our best behavior and best intentions.

The law measures the degree to which our actions contributed to an injury as “proximate cause.” While we are responsible for what we do, the law explicitly protects those who could not have known that their actions would cause harm. This means that you are generally not at fault if you could not reasonably predict a negative outcome from your actions. For example, if you hit someone in your car because the brakes did not work, you may or may not be liable. If the car had a hidden design flaw you could not have known about, you may be free of liability. But if you knew the brakes were faulty and drove the car anyway, a court may hold you responsible.

Comparative negligence

Washington subscribes to the doctrine of comparative negligence. This means that a court calculates fault for an injury as a percentage out of 100%. The degree of fault assigned to each party determines the amount of damages, if any, the plaintiff should receive. If a court rules that the plaintiff is 30% at fault for an accident, the damages he or she receives diminish by 30%.

A court will determine the percentage of fault based on the degree of care taken by each party and the degree to which any carelessness contributed to damages in the case.