The last clear chance doctrine is a legal rule in personal injury cases. The rule assigns fault to the defendant if they had an opportunity – “last chance” – to avert an accident but failed to do so. The doctrine is used in states that follow the contributory negligence rule.
In other words, the last clear chance doctrine is the legal doctrine that in personal injury cases, in which both the plaintiff and defendant are responsible for causing an injury or accident, the plaintiff could still recover damages from the defendant if they had a chance to avoid injuring the plaintiff in the final moments before the incident occurred.
The doctrine of the last clear chance is part of the contributory negligence laws and is sometimes called the doctrine of the last opportunity.
Notably, contributory negligent laws are not the same as comparative fault laws, which say a plaintiff can still recover damages in a personal injury case even if they were partially at fault for causing the injury or accident.
Simply put, the last clear chance doctrine says that in personal injury cases, even when the plaintiff was negligent in an accident, they can still recover damages if the defendant could have avoided the accident using ordinary and reasonable care.
However, the plaintiff must show that the defendant was the person who had the last opportunity to avoid the accident causing injury. They must also prove the responsible party placed themselves in a position of peril due to their negligence and that they could not prevent the dangerous situation caused by the defendant's negligent act.
Further, it must be proven the defendant had knowledge of the perilous situation and could have reasonably avoided it with the exercise of ordinary care, even though the defendant had the last clear chance, they failed to avoid the danger, and their negligence was the proximate cause of the plaintiff being injured.
The burden is on the plaintiff to prove that the defendant had the last clear chance to avoid injuring them.
What is Contributory Negligence?
Contributory negligence states that if a plaintiff did or did not do something that contributed to an accident, they cannot collect damages. Even if a plaintiff is only one percent negligent, they cannot collect damages.
Critics of contributory negligence consider the law unduly harsh and unfriendly to plaintiffs. Exceptions such as the last clear chance doctrine are an attempt to soften the law.
Simply put, if a plaintiff was found to have been negligent in a case, even in a minor way, and the negligence of the plaintiff was a cause of the injury, the plaintiff can't recover any damages from the defendant, even if a defendant's negligence did contribute to the injury.
Last Clear Chance Doctrine- Explained
The last clear chance doctrine applies when the plaintiff and the defendant are at fault. A defendant who could have prevented an injury or accident via reasonable and ordinary care will be considered to have missed the last clear chance. For the last clear chance doctrine to apply, a plaintiff must prove the following:
- Both the plaintiff and defendant were negligent;
- The plaintiff could not avoid the dangerous situation, accident, or injury;
- The defendant knew of the danger;
- The defendant failed to take advantage of an opportunity to prevent the accident or injury;
- The defendant's negligence was a proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries.
What Is an Example?
Lee sues Michael for injuries Lee sustained in a car accident. The accident occurred when Lee had stopped at a red light before turning right.
When turning into the intersection, he failed to see Michael, who was coming from the opposite direction and had sped up when the light turned yellow. Michael hit Lee's car, totaling the vehicle and causing Lee to sustain neck and back injuries.
Under traditional contributory negligence, there are no exceptions for Lee's negligence in the accident. Lee would be unlikely to collect any damages.
If, however, Michael had been on a two-lane road, he may have been able to switch lanes to avoid hitting Lee. Under the last clear chance doctrine, Lee may be able to collect damages because Michael could have prevented the accident with reasonable and ordinary care. In this example, Lee should be able to show all the necessary elements:
- He was negligent in failing to see Michael's car, and Michael was negligent for speeding;
- Lee could not avoid the situation;
- Michael could see that Lee's car was in the way and could have prevented the accident by changing lanes;
A jury would be likely to find the last clear chance doctrine applied.
If Michael had been traveling on a one-lane road and the only way to prevent the accident would be for him to engage in a 180-degree turn before skidding to a stop, a jury would be less likely to find that Michael could have prevented the accident one final time. The actions needed to prevent the accident would unlikely fall under reasonable and ordinary care.
What is Comparative Negligence?
Most states, including California, have adopted comparative negligence in assigning blame. Comparative negligence recognizes that accidents often arise from multiple factors, and even if a plaintiff is partially at fault, they should be entitled to collect some damages.
Some states that use comparative negligence allow plaintiffs to collect only if a plaintiff is less than fifty percent at fault. Other states allow plaintiffs to collect if the defendant was at all negligent.
California falls into the second category and is a pure comparative fault state. What this means for a plaintiff is that, even if they are 99 percent at fault, they may still be able to recover one percent of their damages.
Comparative fault states do not use the last clear chance doctrine. However, whether parties could have prevented the accident may be considered when assigning fault.
Using the above example of Michael and Lee, a court would consider how much each driver's negligence affected the outcome. If a jury found Lee was 55 percent at fault, Lee may be unable to collect damages in some states.
The last clear chance doctrine offers a way to minimize the severity of contributory negligence. In certain circumstances, plaintiffs can collect damages from injuries and other damages.
Other names for the last clear chance doctrine are the last clear chance rule or exemption or the principle of last opportunity. Regardless of the term used, all are an exception to contributory negligence. Contact our personal injury attorneys for a free case review. Injury Justice Law Firm is located in Los Angeles, California.