§15.21 Fifty Percent Rule

The Case: McIntyre v. Balentine , 833 S.W.2d 52 (Tenn. 1992)

The Basic Facts: "In the early morning darkness of November 2, 1986, Plaintiff Harry Douglas McIntyre and Defendant Clifford Balentine were involved in a motor vehicle accident resulting in severe injuries to Plaintiff … Both men had consumed alcohol the evening of the accident." 833 S.W.2d at 53.

The Bottom Line:

  • "Two basic forms of comparative fault are utilized by 45 of our sister jurisdictions, these variants being commonly referred to as either 'pure' or 'modified.' In the 'pure' formFN5, a plaintiff's damages are reduced in proportion to the percentage negligence attributed to him; for example, a plaintiff responsible for 90 percent of the negligence that caused his injuries nevertheless may recover 10 percent of his damages. In the 'modified' formFN6, plaintiffs recover as in pure jurisdictions, but only if the plaintiff's negligence either (1) does not exceed ('50 percent' jurisdictions) or (2) is less than ('49 percent jurisdictions') the defendant's negligence. See generally [V. Schwartz, supra, at §§ 3.2, 3.5].
    FN5 The 13 states utilizing pure comparative fault are Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington. See [V. Schwartz, supra, at § 2.1].

    FN6 The 21 states using the '50 percent' modified form: Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The 9 states using the '49 percent' form: Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, North Dakota, Utah and West Virginia. Two states, Nebraska and South Dakota, use a slight-gross system of comparative fault. See [V. Schwartz, supra, at § 2.1]."
    833 S.W.2d at 57.
  • "Although we conclude that the all-or-nothing rule of contributory negligence must be replaced, we nevertheless decline to abandon totally our fault-based tort system. We do not agree that a party should necessarily be able to recover in tort even though he may be 80, 90, or 95 percent at fault. We therefore reject the pure form of comparative fault." Id.
  • "We recognize that modified comparative fault systems have been criticized as merely shifting the arbitrary contributory negligence bar to a new ground. See, e.g., Li v. Yellow Cab Co., 532 P.2d 1226 (Ca. 1975)]. However, we feel the '49 percent rule' ameliorates the harshness of the common law rule while remaining compatible with a fault-based tort system. Accord Bradley v. Appalachian Power Co., [256 S.E.2d 879, 887 (W. Va. 1979)]. We therefore hold that so long as a plaintiff's negligence remains less than the defendant's negligence the plaintiff may recover; in such a case, plaintiff's damages are to be reduced in proportion to the percentage of the total negligence attributable to the plaintiff." Id.
  • "In all trials where the issue of comparative fault is before a jury, the trial court shall instruct the jury on the effect of the jury's finding as to the percentage of negligence as between the plaintiff or plaintiffs and the defendant or defendants. Accord Colo.Rev. Stat. § 13-21-111.5(5) (1987). The attorneys for each party shall be allowed to argue how this instruction affects a plaintiff's ability to recover." Id.
  • "[I]n cases of multiple tortfeasors, plaintiff will be entitled to recover so long as plaintiff's fault is less than the combined fault of all other tortfeasors." Id. at 58.

Recent Cases: 

Hall v. Owens, No. W2014-02214-COA-R3-CV, 2015 WL 7354384 (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 20, 2015) (summary judgment affirmed where plaintiff had red left turn arrow and defendant had green light; no reasonable juror could find defendant at least 50% at fault for the accident); Russell v. Anderson County, No.  E2010-00189-COA-R3-CV, 2011 WL 486900 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 11, 2011) (The fact that one plaintiff was 45% percent at fault does not impact ability of that plaintiff to recover damages from a defendant who was 45% at fault; the test is not the fault of the plaintiff versus the fault of any one defendant but rather whether the fault of the plaintiff is less than 50%); Bess v. Properties, L.P., No. M2008-01691-COA-R3-CV, 2010 WL 2350473 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 11, 2010) (reversing bench verdict for plaintiff finding only one conclusion to be drawn from physical evidence – that plaintiff was at least 50% at fault for the accident).

Martin v. Norfolk Southern Ry. Co. , 271 S.W.3d 76 (Tenn. 2008) (reversing trial court's determination that no reasonable jury could determine that plaintiff was less than fifty percent at fault finding plaintiff demonstrated genuine issues of material fact); Hocker v. State, No. E2008-02638-COA-R3-CV, 2009 WL 3518164 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 30, 2009) (reversing Claims Commissioner's judgment that plaintiff was at least fifty percent at fault in negligent road design case); Freemon v. Logan's Roadhouse, Inc., No. M2007-01796-COA-R3-CV, 2009 WL 499471 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 25, 2009) (reversing summary judgment in premises liability case finding that although existence of peanuts on restaurant floor may have been open and obvious where defendant encouraged patrons to discard peanut shells on the floor, that did not dictate finding that plaintiff was fifty percent or more at fault); Salyer v. McCurry, No. E2008-01017-COA-R3-CV, 2009 WL 211873 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 29, 2009) (reversing summary judgment finding genuine issues of material fact as to degree of plaintiff's negligence); Crook v. Despeaux, No. W2007-00941-COA-R3-CV, 2008 WL 4936526 (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 19, 2008) (upholding summary judgment finding no reasonable jury could conclude plaintiff was less than fifty percent at fault); Sanders v. CB Richard Ellis, Inc., No. W2007-02805-COA-R3-CV, 2008 WL 4366124 (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 22, 2008) (upholding trial court's grant of summary judgment in premises liability case finding plaintiff was at least fifty percent at fault where plaintiff ignored open and obvious danger of icy parking lot when walking into bank, decided not to use drive-through window, and that a reasonable person would have avoided the risk); Westervelt v. State, No. M2006-00766-COA-R3-CV, 2007 WL 1159345 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 18, 2007) perm. appeal denied (Sept. 17, 2007) (affirming decision of Claims Commission finding claimant to be 65% at fault which precluded an award of damages under McIntyre v. Ballentine ).

After an accident, many injury victims and their families want more information on the accident and their legal rights. Consequently, many of them have found their way to these pages. While we are happy you are here, please understand Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law was written to be a quick, invaluable reference for Tennessee tort lawyers. While the book provides the leading case for more than 300 tort law subjects and thousands of related case citations, it is not a substitute for personalized legal advice from a qualified lawyer.

Rather than researching these legal issues alone, we urge you to contact one of our award-winning lawyers who can sit down with you, review your case, answer your questions and clearly explain your rights and your options in a no-cost, no-obligation consultation. Our experienced attorneys handle all personal injury and wrongful death cases on a contingency basis, so we only get paid if we win. If for any reason you are unable to come to our office, we will gladly come to you.

To schedule an appointment, contact us online or call us at 615-742-4880 or toll-free at 866-812-8787.



The foregoing is an excerpt from Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law, published by John A. Day, Civil Trial Specialist, Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, recipient of Best Lawyers in America recognition, Martindale-Hubbell AV® Preeminent™ rated attorney, and Top 100 Tennessee Mid-South Super Lawyers designee. Read John’s full bio here.

To order a copy of the book, visit www.dayontortsbook.com. John also blogs regularly on key issues for tort lawyers. To subscribe to the Day on Torts blog, visit www.dayontorts.com.

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