Contributory Negligence Stops NC Lawsuits in Their Tracks

Contributory Negligence Stops NC Lawsuits in Their Tracks

We all take risks every day. But how careful are you really? That’s where the legal concept of “contributory negligence” comes in.

North Carolina is one of just a few states in the country that recognizes the defense of contributory negligence. Under this defense, plaintiffs in civil lawsuits cannot recover for their injuries resulting from a defendant’s actions if their own negligence contributed to their injury.

North Carolina is just one of several states that recognizes contributory negligence, but its consequences can be severe.

The test for contributory negligence is simple. Courts compare your behavior to that of a reasonable person under similar circumstances. Did you act in a manner comparable to that which a reasonable person under similar circumstances would have? If the answer is yes, you still get to recover for your injuries. But, if the answer is no, you don’t get to recover anything at all.

North Carolina Court of Appeals addresses contributory negligence
Image courtesy of Inaki del Olmo on Unsplash.

As you can see, the consequences of a jury or a court finding you contributorily negligent are harsh. Even if you’re just a little negligent, you’re simply out of luck. This past week, the North Carolina Court of Appeals issued a unanimous opinion that illustrates the point perfectly.

Samuel Sealey was performing contract work as a service technician for Farmin’ Brands, LLC, in Wilmington. About three weeks in to the project, Sealey decided to use one of Farmin’ Brands’ ladders to bring a coworker a pair of pipe benders. According to Sealey, he had watched several other workers use the ladder without issue.

Unfortunately, Sealey wasn’t as fortunate. While up on the ladder, Sealey realized it wasn’t properly tied off. When he attempted to step off the ladder, it slid backward, causing him to fall to the ground. As a result of the fall, Sealey suffered knee, ankle, foot, and other lower-body injuries.

Farmin' Brands' BBQ Sauce
Image courtesy of Farmin’ Brands/Facebook.

Sealey filed a lawsuit against Farmin’ Brands, but it didn’t take long for his case to come to an end.

Sealey filed a lawsuit against Farmin’ Brands, but New Hanover County Superior Court Judge Andrew Heath dismissed it without a trial. On appeal, the North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed, focusing entirely on contributory negligence.

In reaching that decision, the Court of Appeals, emphasized Sealey’s admission that he didn’t know whether the ladder was secure despite having an opportunity to do so. “By his own admission, Sealey could have easily moved the ladder to ascertain whether it was tied off, and by his own admission, he did not do so,” the Court wrote. The Court similarly emphasized his experience, training and opportunity, stating that “a reasonably prudent person in his position” would have secured the ladder.

Because of Sealey’s mistake, North Carolina courts didn’t even have to address Farmin’ Brands’ alleged wrongdoing.

“The uncontroverted evidence clearly establishes Sealey’s negligence in this instance,” the Court said. “The trial court did not err in granting summary judgment for Farmin’ Brands.”

The NC Court of Appeals only addressed contributory negligence
Image courtesy of the Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash.

The NC Court of Appeals reached this conclusion without even addressing Farmin’ Brands’ conduct. “We need not address the premises liability component of Sealey’s argument,” it explained.

For Sealey, his lawsuit’s outcome illustrated a harsh reality. In NC, even if you’re just a little negligent, your lawsuit will come to an end as quickly as it began.

Stay up to date with North Carolina News Daily’s coverage of the NC Court of Appeals in our Law section! And don’t forget to also check out our NC Voices section for more legal and political commentary!