In a negligence action, a plaintiff must be able to prove that the defendant owed a duty to commit an act or refrain from committing an act; the defendant breached their duty; and the breach of duty proximately caused damage to the plaintiff.
The District of Columbia follows a contributory negligence standard which is a complete defense to an action based on negligence. Contributory negligence bars a plaintiff from monetary recovery if the plaintiff contributed in any way to their injury. This means that even if the percentage of fault attributed to the plaintiff was as little as 1%, recovery is barred.
However, as seen in Felton v. Wagner, 512 A.2d 291 (D.C. 1986), the defense of contributory negligence is not available for employers against employees in actions based on an employer’s breach of the duty to provide reasonably safe working conditions.
Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority v. Young, 731 A.2d 389,. 394 (D.C. 1999), discussed another exception to the bar to recovery that contributory negligence establishes which is called the doctrine of last clear chance. Under this doctrine, the plaintiff must prove by the preponderance of the evidence:
“(1) that the plaintiff was in a position of danger caused by the negligence of both plaintiff and defendant; (2) that the plaintiff was oblivious to the danger, or unable to extricate [himself] from the position of danger; (3) that the defendant was aware, or by the exercise of reasonable care should have been aware, of the plaintiff’s danger and of [his] oblivion to it or [his] inability to extricate [himself] from it; and (4) that the defendant, with means available to him, could have avoided injuring the plaintiff after becoming aware of the danger and the plaintiff’s inability to extricate [himself] from it, but failed to do so.”
Joint & Several Liability
In the District of Columbia, when the negligence of two or more tortfeasors combines to cause injury to the plaintiff, the plaintiff may file suit against each tortfeasor for the full amount of damages resulting from the injury and each defendant may be found liable for the full amount of damages claimed. However, the District of Columbia does allow for contribution among joint tortfeasors. Therefore, multiple tortfeasors each found to be financially responsible for harm caused to the plaintiff would pay equal shares of the total damages award regardless of whether one defendant was more at fault than another.
Compensatory damages are awarded by a Court to compensate the plaintiff for injuries suffered as a result of the negligence of the defendant(s). The award is meant to restore the plaintiff – as much as possible – to the condition they were in prior to the injury occurring.
Compensatory damages include :
- The extent and duration of the injury
- Physical pain and emotional distress
- Medical expenses
- Loss of earnings
Punitive damages are meant to punish a defendant rather than to compensate the plaintiff. According to Jonathan Woodner Co. v. Breden, 665 A.2d 929, 938 (D.C. 1995), cert. denied 117 S. Ct. 1080 (1997), in the District of Columbia punitive damages may be awarded but such damages are only warranted when the defendant “commits a tortious act accompanied by fraud, ill will, recklessness, wantonness, oppressiveness, willful disregard of the plaintiff’s right, or other circumstances tending to aggravate the injury.” The plaintiff must first prove, by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant committed a tortious act, and then prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that the tortious act was accompanied by conduct and a state of mind of malice.
The law firm of Walker Morgan is located at 135 E Main St., Lexington, SC 29072. All lawyers at Walker Morgan are licensed to practice law in the State of South Carolina. Should you wish to retain our firm for legal representation regarding a potential case in any other jurisdiction we are required to associate local counsel in that foreign jurisdiction and seek permission from a court of the foreign jurisdiction to temporarily engage in the practice of law therein for purposes of pursuing your potential claim only.
By offering the following information the lawyers at Walker Morgan are not offering legal advice or legal guidance. The lawyers at Walker Morgan are not licensed to practice law in Washington DC. Should you have a question/concern specific to Washington DC law, please contact an attorney licensed to practice law in the State of Washington DC.