For most of its history, West Virginia has used the legal doctrine of joint and several liability when it comes to allocating damages among multiple defendants. "Joint and several" means that the plaintiff can collect damages from all of the defendants, or any one of them, in any proportion. This can, and has led to situations in which more than one defendant is found liable, but in the end only one of them pays the damages award.
Naturally, defendants who end up paying more than they consider to be their fair share of damages have considered joint and several liability to be unfair. And in March of this year the state legislature and the governor came to agree with them, signing into law "comparative fault" legislation that does away with joint and several liability. The law has become effective 90 days after its signature, so as of June of 2015 comparative fault has supplanted joint and several liability in West Virginia.
Now, if for example you are involved in a multi-car accident and more than one other driver is at fault, if you take the matter to court and prevail there the amount that the multiple defendants will owe will be based only on the portion of the blame that the jury assigns to them. For example, if the jury decides that you were 25 percent at fault, and of two defendants one was 45 percent at fault and the other was 30 percent at fault and your damages award is $100,000, your award will break down as follows:
- The overall sum will be reduced to $75,000, reflecting your share of fault
- One defendant will owe $45,000
- The other defendant will owe $30,000
Except for certain narrow circumstances, which we will look at in a later post, you will not be able to collect $75,000 from just one of the defendants, which would have been the case under the old joint and several liability system.
The new comparative fault law has some other provisions which are beyond the scope of this post. What you read here is intended only for informational purposes, and is not meant to be legal advice. If you have been in a car accident and want to know how the changes in the law may affect you, we recommend that you consult with a personal injury attorney licensed in this state.