last clear chance

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The last clear chance doctrine is used in tort law for cases involving negligence and is applied when both the plaintiff and defendant are responsible for an accident that resulted in harm. When applied in states with contributory negligence laws, it is often seen as a type of exception or limitation to those laws. The doctrine considers which party had the last opportunity to avoid the accident that caused the harm.

Therefore, a negligent plaintiff may recover damages if they can show that the defendant had the last clear chance to avoid the accident. A defendant may also use the doctrine as a defense by showing that the plaintiff had the last clear chance to avoid the accident.

Under some circumstances, a plaintiff who has negligently subjected themselves to a risk caused by a defendant’s subsequent negligence may still recover. For example, if the plaintiff cannot avoid the harm by exercising reasonable vigilance and care, or the defendant negligently fails to utilize with reasonable care and competence his opportunity to avoid the harm.

To illustrate, in the old English case of Davies v. Mann, the plaintiff negligently tied his donkey near a road. The defendant hit and killed the donkey as he was riding his wagon along that road at a high speed. The plaintiff was able to recover against the defendant who killed the donkey because the defendant could have avoided the accident if he had used ordinary care. Although the plaintiff was negligent in leaving the donkey there, he was able to recover because the negligent defendant had the last clear chance to avoid the accident.

[Last updated in July of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]