By: Matthew Tievsky
The District of Columbia is one of the few jurisdictions that applies the
law of “contributory negligence.” For example, this means
that if a wrongdoer negligently operates his vehicle so as to cause a
motor vehicle collision, but the victim also did something negligent that
contributed to the accident – even if the victim was much less at
fault than the wrongdoer – then the victim cannot win a lawsuit
against the wrongdoer.
However, the District of Columbia also recognizes another legal doctrine
that softens the rule of contributory negligence. This legal doctrine
is called the “last clear chance” doctrine. This means that
if the wrongdoer was negligent and the victim was also contributorily
negligent; and, as a result, the victim was put in a position where he/she
was helpless to save him or herself; and the wrongdoer was still in a
position to avoid injuring the victim, then the wrongdoer had the “last
clear chance” to prevent injury and is responsible for the harm
In a recently decided case, Fisher v. Latney, the District’s high
court, the Court of Appeals, further defined the circumstances under which
the last clear chance doctrine may apply. In Fisher, the plaintiff was
driving on three-lane roadway in the right lane. The plaintiff then changed
lanes suddenly from the right lane all the way to the left lane, just
in front of the defendant’s vehicle. The left bumper of plaintiff’s
vehicle then came into contact with the front of the defendant’s
vehicle. As a result of the collision, the plaintiff was injured.
At trial, the plaintiff acknowledged that there was evidence that he was
contributorily negligent, but he asked the judge to permit the jury to
find that the defendant was still liable under the last clear chance doctrine.
The judge refused and, on appeal, the Court of Appeals held that this
was the right decision for two reasons: First, there was no evidence that
the Plaintiff was unable to save himself from the danger that he had put
himself in by changing lanes suddenly; and, second, there was no evidence
that the defendant was in a position to save the plaintiff, as the plaintiff’s
lane-change was sudden and unexpected.
Where you’ve been injured in a
motor vehicle collision, determining whether you may have been contributorily negligent –
and whether the wrongdoer can still be held liable under the last clear
chance doctrine – can require expert legal analysis. If you have
been hurt in an automobile collision, you should
contact the personal injury attorneys at Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata & Siegel,
P.C., for a free consultation to see whether you have a strong case.