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Rick Shapiro
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Deadly Pedestrian Crash in Newport News, VA Highlights Problems With Contributory Negligence

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An archaic legal concept still applied in Virginia may prevent the family of a woman killed in a hit-and-run collision from receiving compensation from the negligent and reckless driver who took the life of their loved one. Known as “pure contributory negligence,” the legal principal states that accident victims who can be shown in court to have caused their own injuries or death in even the slightest way bear as much responsibility for the outcome as anyone else.

The most recent case in which this nonsensical rule could be applied is a fatal pedestrian crash that occurred on Jefferson Avenue in Newport News, VA. At around 1 am on March 1, a car struck and fatally injured a Hampton resident who was walking in the roadway. The at-fault driver, identified by witnesses as being behind the wheel of a gold Chevrolet Malibu with front-end damage and a missing windshield wiper, never stopped to check on the victim. Police have asked anyone with additional information to contact the Crime Line at (888) LOCK-U-UP (562-5887).

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Ice and snow covering sidewalks may have convinced a woman who got hit and killed by a hit-and-run driver to walk in the road along Jefferson Avenue in Newport News, VA.

As the picture to the left shows, the sidewalks and curbs on both sides of the street where the deadly crash occurred were covered with ice and snow. Difficulty with keeping her footing on the slippery surfaces may have convinced the 60-year-old woman to risk walking in the same lane as oncoming cars and trucks. Legal representatives for the at-fault driver’s insurance company will no doubt spin that decision as irresponsible and evidence of contributory negligence.

If that scenario does play out, it will make no difference under Virginia law that a responsible driver probably could have seen and avoided the pedestrian. Nor will it matter that other laws — to say nothing of ethics and morality — require drivers who cause wrecks to provide aid to victims and wait for police and emergency medical personnel to arrive.

Calls to abandon Virginia’s embrace of pure contributory negligence have circulated for decades, usually accompanied by recommendations to adopt the principle of comparative negligence. Under comparative negligence, insurance settlements and court awards to injured parties get reduced in direct proportion to the degree to which victims put their health or lives at risk by acting negligently or recklessly. All but four states and Washington, DC, recognize some form of comparative negligence.

My Virginia Beach personal injury and wrongful death law firm colleagues and I add our voices to those denouncing the contributory negligence rule as outdated, unjust and impractical. In some instances, strict application of the principle allows individuals and companies to escape financial consequences despite inflicting truly egregious harms. That could, sadly, be the result if the hit-and-run driver in Newport News is located.

EJL