Until recently, Tennessee followed the doctrines of “contributory negligence.” Under contributory negligence, a person harmed by a defendant’s negligent act may be unable to recover anything in damages if that person contributed, even in a small way, to the harm. Thus, for example, a person exceeding the speed limit by two miles per hour might be unable to recover damages from a drunk driver who was exceeding the speed limit by fifty miles per hour and driving on the wrong side of the road.
The Tennessee Supreme Court had refused on previous occasions to consider abandoning contributory negligence. Although the doctrine, like most rules of tort law, was judge-made to begin with, the court wished to give the general assembly a chance to abolish contributory negligence by statute.
In McIntyre (1992) the Tennessee Supreme Court abolished the doctrine of contributory negligence and replaced it with a system of comparative negligence. Under the new rule, so long as the plaintiff’s fault is less than the defendant’s, the plaintiff can adopt a pro-rata share of the damages. If the jury finds that the plaintiff is 25 percent at fault, for example, and the defendant 75 percent at fault, then the plaintiff can recover three-fourths of what he or she would receive if the fault were entirely that of the defendant.
Comparative negligence now is the rule in most states. It is seen as less harsh than contributory negligence, which could deny a seriously injured person any recovery at all, even where the victim’s negligence is minor in relation to that of the defendant.