several liability

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Several liability refers to a type of liability system that courts use to allocate responsibility for damages in tort cases with multiple negligent parties. The term several liability can refer to many types of liability systems such as pure several liability, joint-and-several liability, or a cross between the two.

Pure several liability holds defendants liable only for the damages to the plaintiff they are actually responsible for. For example, if a jury found defendant A 60% responsible and defendant B 40% responsible for $100,000 of damages, the plaintiff could only recover $40,000 from defendant B even if defendant A could pay nothing. 

On the other hand, pure joint-and-several liability holds each defendant liable for all the damages to the plaintiff if another defendant cannot pay their share. In the above example, defendant B would be liable for all the $100,000 if defendant A could not pay anything even though defendant B was only 40% responsible. The plaintiff can only receive the damages actually incurred and could not get $100,000 from each defendant. Under joint-and-several liability, if a defendant pays more than their share (like defendant B above), the defendant can try to get reimbursed for the other defendant’s share through contribution

Pure several liability arose in the late twentieth century in response to inequities created by joint-and-several liability. Joint-and-several liability can cause inequities where a defendant who may only be 5% responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries could end up paying for all the damages if other defendants were insolvent. While several liability resolves this problem, it creates problems of its own because the plaintiff could be stuck without receiving compensation for the majority of the damages. For example, defendants A with 40% responsibility, B with 30% responsibility, and C with 30% responsibility cause $100,000 of damages to the plaintiff in a car wreck. If only C could pay their share, the plaintiff would be stuck with $70,000 of uncompensated damages under several liability.

In response to the inequities of both systems, states have created a variety of mixed versions of the two systems including:

  • Holding the defendants joint-and-severally liable only if the plaintiff was not negligent.
  • Only holding a defendant joint-and severally liable if they were responsible for a certain share of the damages such as 50%.
  • As in Texas and Oregon, a defendant can only be held joint-and-severally liable if they were more responsible for the damages than the plaintiff.

Several liability changes in many states if the plaintiff is also responsible for some of the damages. In many states, the plaintiff is comparatively responsible for their share like other defendants in a purely several liability system. However, in many states the plaintiff cannot recover if they are responsible for half or more of the damages. In five states and the District of Columbia, contributory negligence applies which prevents plaintiffs from recovering anything if they are negligent themselves.

[Last updated in July of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team