Damages or losses caused by more than one responsible party fall under a legal rule known as joint and several liability. The rule allows a plaintiff to file a lawsuit against all responsible parties, or just one. Some state laws assign proportional blame to guilty defendants, while others allow one defendant to shoulder the responsibility of paying a judgment.
Let’s take a closer look at joint and several liability and how and when it may come into play.
Definition and Examples of Joint and Several Liability
Joint and several liability is a legal situation in which two or more parties share responsibility jointly and individually. Joint and several liability allows a plaintiff to sue all responsible parties jointly, or individually, making it possible for a plaintiff to collect a full judgment from all defendants or just one.
For example, if a married couple takes out a mortgage to buy a home, they are jointly and individually responsible for paying the loan back. If they divorce but continue joint ownership of the home, they remain jointly and individually responsible for paying the mortgage.
In the case of several liability, each person or party is responsible for their portion of the obligation. Take a group of lenders in the case of a syndicated loan, which calls for several lenders to fund a specific loan amount. If one of the lenders fails to meet its obligation to the borrower, the borrower can sue that particular lender. The other lenders will not share liability.
How Joint and Several Liability Works
Joint and several liability lawsuits often involve toxic tort claims, such as mesothelioma cases stemming from asbestos exposure. For instance, if a construction worker encounters asbestos at several job sites that results in mesothelioma, they can file a single joint and several liability lawsuit against all responsible parties.
To qualify as a joint and several claim, more than one party must share responsibility. This can entail a contractual agreement that details the joint responsibility or separate agreements that describe the same responsibility.
For example, if two people jointly take out a loan, then default on payments, the lender could try to collect the money from both parties, or the individual who has the most assets.
When two or more parties have several liability, they hold responsibility for their portion of an obligation. For example, if you hire a contractor to build a house, the contractor will hire subcontractors to complete certain portions of the build. A tile contractor would hold the several liability of installing your bathroom floor, while a cabinet subcontractor would only hold the responsibility of making your kitchen cabinets.
Let’s say a plumbing subcontractor starts a fire with a blowtorch while your home is under construction. If your contractor agreement stipulates several liability for subcontractors, you would have to sue the plumbing subcontractor for the damages.
Joint and Several Liability
Joint and several liability terms place responsibility on more than one party. For example, if your contractor agreement stipulates joint and several liability for subcontractor work, you could sue the contractor, plumbing subcontractor, or both for the fire damage.
In joint and several liability claims, the plaintiff may pursue and win a judgment against just one defendant. In such cases, the defendant that pays the claim can pursue a claim against the other parties liable for the plaintiff’s claim.
For instance, if you sue the contractor over the fire damage, and win a judgment, the contractor could sue the plumbing subcontractor for starting the fire.
While joint and several liability enables a plaintiff to collect an award from just one responsible party, it does not allow them to receive double compensation from multiple parties.
Comparative negligence is a tort rule that assigns degrees of fault to the parties involved. It’s often applied in traffic accident claims. For example, while driving to work, Julio abruptly slams on his brakes, causing Fatima to slam into the back of his car. Since the accident was a rear-end collision, Fatima will likely receive a traffic citation.
However, Fatima and Julio’s insurance companies may investigate the accident and determine that both parties share blame for the accident. They may determine that Fatima’s insurance policy should pay 80% of the damages because she was following Julio too closely, and Julio's policy should pay 20% of the losses because he stopped abruptly.
Comparative negligence laws vary by state. For instance, in Nebraska, cases with more than one defendant that involve economic damages apply joint and several liability. But defendants only face several liability for noneconomic damages, in proportion to their percentage of the harm caused.
In Missouri joint and several cases, a single defendant must pay a full punitive damages judgment when found responsible for at least 51% of the harm caused. Defendants found to cause less than 51% of the harm must only pay the percentage for which they are responsible. So, if three defendants are responsible for less than 51% of the harm each, all three must pay their proportional share of the judgment.
Pros and Cons of Joint and Several Liability
Not always fair
- Compensation: Joint and several liability gives a plaintiff the option to seek compensation from more than one responsible party.
- Deterrence: Joint and several liability can help prevent harm from happening. Parties that know they can face full liability are more likely to avoid causing harm.
- Not always fair: In some cases, a defendant who bears less responsibility than another defendant may end up paying a full judgment.
- Litigation costs: In some jurisdictions, joint and several liability lawsuits require two court proceedings, one to determine liability and another to determine the percentage of fault for each defendant. These protracted proceedings increase legal costs for all parties.
- Joint and several liability applies when more than one party is responsible for damage or loss.
- Joint and several liability allows a plaintiff to sue all responsible parties, or just one.
- In some jurisdictions, courts apply comparative negligence when deciding the amount each responsible party must pay.