Establishing Fault in a Tennessee Accident and Injury Case

What Must Be Proven to Win a Personal Injury Case in Tennessee?


Not every injury is compensated under the laws of Tennessee. Most personal injury cases involve the laws of negligence.  In general terms, the jury (or judge) must decide that the Defendant(s) were negligent in a way that legally caused you a harm or injury, that the Defendant(s)’ share of fault totaled more than 50% of the overall fault, and that you suffered damages as a result.

1.         Was The Person Negligent?

The first thing that must be proven in a negligence claim is that the other person was actually negligent.  Negligence is defined as failing to use ordinary or reasonable care—it is either doing something that a reasonably careful person would not do, or failing to do something that a reasonably careful person would do under all the circumstances.  Thus, the particular act or failure to act is looked at in the light of what a “reasonable person” would do in the same or similar circumstances.

2.         Did The Person’s Negligence Cause The Harm Or Injury?

Once you prove the other side was actually negligent, you must then prove that their negligence was a legal cause of the injuries or harms you have suffered.  The negligence must be both what is called (1) a “cause in fact” or “but for” cause, and (2) a “legal” or “proximate” cause of the injuries or harms.  The first of the two types of cause is a relatively simple concept:  you simply ask yourself if “but for” the negligence, would the injury or harm have occurred?  For example, a person who is in a typical car accident could say that he or she would never have been hit by the other driver “but for” the fact that the driver negligently woke up late before leaving his house that morning.  Had the driver woken up on time, he would have left the house earlier and never hit the plaintiff.  The other driver waking up late and leaving his house at the time he did is therefore a “but for” cause of the accident.  Obviously, though, it wouldn’t be fair to hold the driver responsible for the accident just because he woke up late that morning.  That is where “legal” (also sometimes called “proximate”) cause comes into play.

Therefore, the purpose of proving that the negligence was the “legal cause” of the injuries or harms is to determine which causes out of a virtually infinite number of “but for” causes for which it is appropriate to hold someone liable.  Legal cause of an injury has therefore been defined as “a cause which, in natural and continuous sequence, produces an injury, and without which the injury would not have occurred.” [1]  In other words, in order for it to legally be considered a “cause” of the injury or harm:  (1) it must be a cause that would produce an injury or harm under a natural and continuous sequence of events, and (2) it must be a cause that was necessary for the injury or harm to have occurred.

While “legal cause” may sound complicated, think back to our prior example.  The other driver waking up late is probably not the kind of negligence that would normally, naturally result in a car crash.  It is therefore not fair to tie the negligence in waking up late to the later crash.  However, if the other driver was negligent because he failed to look at the stop light and ran through the red light, that is the type of negligence that “under a natural and continuous sequence of events” would cause a car crash.  Therefore, negligently running a red light would almost certainly be a “legal cause” of the accident, whereas negligently waking up late probably would not be.

3.         Comparative Fault:  Were You Less Than 50% At Fault?

Tennessee has adopted the law of modified comparative negligence.   This means that the jury will assign fault to each potentially at fault party involved in an incident—including the Plaintiff.  It will be the Defendant’s job to prove that the Plaintiff was in some way at fault in the matter, and if the Defendant is able to do so, then a percentage of the overall fault will be assigned to the Plaintiff.  This has an important impact on a Plaintiff’s recovery in two ways:  (1) any award to the Plaintiff will be reduced by the Plaintiff’s percentage of fault in the matter; and, (2) if the Plaintiff’s percentage of the overall fault in the matter is 50% or more, the Plaintiff recovers nothing!

Comparative Fault Examples:

Here are a few examples to demonstrate how Comparative Fault impacts a Plaintiff’s case.  For the examples, assume that an injured party we’ll call “Pete” the Plaintiff has suffered $100,000.00 in damages from a car crash with an at fault party we’ll call “David” the Defendant, and that a jury assigned the following percentages of fault at trial:



PARTY                        FAULT


Pete                             0%


David                           100%   


Total Fault                    100%


Pete would recover 100% of his damage (equaling $100,000.00)



PARTY                        FAULT

Pete                             25%


David                           75%


Total Fault                    100%


Pete would recover 75% of his damage (equaling $75,000.00)



PARTY                        FAULT

Pete                             49%


David                           51%


Total Fault                    100%


Pete would recover 51% of his damage (equaling $51,000.00)



PARTY                        FAULT

Pete                             50%


David                           50%


Total Fault                    100%


Pete would recover NOTHING because his negligence was equal to or greater that that of David.


4.         Damages

Lastly, the injured party must prove the damages that were caused by the incident.  Damages for personal injury cases vary depending upon how an individual is injured, but typical damages consist of one or more of the following:  medical expenses, past and future pain and suffering, past and future loss of enjoyment of life, loss of past earnings and/or future earning capacity, and property damage.

In addition, in a Wrongful Death action, the next of kin can recover for their loss of the person, including amounts for lost support and the loss of “consortium” with the person.  This includes amounts for lost attention, guidance, care, protection, training, companionship, cooperation, affection, love, and in the case of a spouse, sexual relations.

Proving the physical injuries and related medical expenses is usually done by and through the treating physician and/or surgeon of the patient.  This is normally done prior to trial by the injury attorney who takes the Doctor’s deposition to use as proof at the trial.


[1] Tennessee Pattern Jury Instructions (Civil) 3.20.