Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Langhofer v. Reiss, 620 P.2d 1173 (Kan. Ct. App. 1980).
This case addresses the following issues:
Can the plaintiff’s recovery be reduced if he or she was found to have a percentage of the fault?
Does Kansas compare fault percentages individually or as a group?
This case explored two issues: (1) whether a plaintiff’s recovery could be reduced if he or she was found to have a percentage of the fault; and (2) how the court compares fault percentages when deciding if a party should recover damages. In exploring this case, the court concluded that the award of damages should be diminished in proportion to the amount of negligence attributed to such party. Id. at 1178. Additionally, the court held that they compare fault percentages as a group. Id.
This case involved the collision between two motorcyclists on a highway. Id. at 1174. One of the motorcyclist (plaintiff) was on his way home from a family reunion. Id. The other motorcyclist (defendant) was in pursuit of an unidentified vehicle driven by a person who was suspected of stealing gasoline from a tank on the defendant’s farm. Id. at 1175. The plaintiff was following his wife, who was driving a station wagon, on a four-mile stretch of highway. Id. at 1174. It was tradition in the family that whoever drove with the plaintiff would beat the mom home. Id. at 1175. Since the highway was only two lanes, the plaintiff blinked his lights twice to indicate he was beginning to pass and saw no oncoming traffic. Id. Within seconds of passing his wife, the plaintiff collided with defendant. Id. The defendant had been having trouble with his headlights and the headlights were not working at the time of the collision. Id. The plaintiff brought a lawsuit against the defendant after the collision. Id. In response, the defendant brought a lawsuit against the plaintiff and a claim against his motorcycle manufacturer. Id. At the end of the trial, the jury found the plaintiff was 40% at fault, the defendant was 40% at fault, and the motorcycle manufacturer was 20% at fault. Id. Furthermore, at the defendant’s damages trial, the jury found that the defendant had sustained damages of $205,000. Id. at 1176. However, since the defendant was 40% at fault, he only received 60% of the damages which came out to be $123,000. Id. Of the $123,000, the plaintiff had to pay $82,000 and the motorcycle manufacturer had to pay $41,000. Id.
One of the main takeaways from this case was the fact that the defendant was not able to recover the full $205,000 that the jury awarded him because he was 40% at fault. Id. According to a Kansas statute, “. . . the award of damages to any party in such action shall be diminished in proportion to the amount of negligence attributed to such party . . . .” Id. at 1178. Therefore, the defendant was only entitled to 60% of the total damages awarded to him. Id. at 1176.
The issue that the plaintiff had with the ruling was that he had to pay the defendant $82,000 even though the court determined that they both were equally responsible for the collision. Id. at 1177. In defending his argument, the plaintiff relied solely on a Kansas statute which stated that a party could recover damages if their own negligence was “less than the causal negligence of the party or parties against whom claim for recovery was made.” Id. at 1178. Therefore, the plaintiff did not think the defendant should be able to recover from him because the defendant’s percentage of fault was not less than plaintiffs. Id. In challenging the plaintiff’s argument, the court put much emphasis on the phrase “of the party or parties” and stated that the defendant’s percentage was less than the plaintiff’s if all the parties against the defendant were included. Id. So, the court took the 40% fault from the plaintiff and the 20% fault from the motorcycle manufacturer and determined that the defendant’s 40% fault was less than the combined 60% fault of the plaintiff and manufacturer. Id. The court referred to this process as “aggregate comparison.” Id.
In sum, the court awarded the defendant only 60% of his total damages and refuted the plaintiff’s argument by using aggregate comparison. Id. at 1181.