Legal Definition of Joint and Several Liability
Joint and several liability is a legal doctrine under which each party involved in a tortious act can be held responsible for the entire amount of damages awarded in a lawsuit. This concept is commonly applied in cases where multiple parties are found to be at fault for a plaintiff’s injury or loss. Under this rule, the plaintiff can recover the entire amount of damages from any one of the liable parties, regardless of their individual share of the fault.
The principle behind joint and several liability is that it ensures the plaintiff can be fully compensated for their injuries, especially in cases where one or more defendants are insolvent or cannot be found. After paying, the defendant who pays the full amount of damages can seek contribution from the other at-fault parties for their share of the liability.
There are two components to this concept:
- Joint Liability: This implies that two or more parties are held collectively responsible for the damages. The plaintiff can sue all liable parties together, but the total recovery cannot exceed the amount of total damages awarded.
- Several Liability: This means that each party is individually responsible for their part of the damages. The plaintiff can choose to sue one or more parties separately, and each defendant is liable only for their proportion of the fault.
Joint and several liability is often applied in cases involving negligence, where multiple parties have contributed to the harm suffered by the plaintiff. This might include cases like multi-vehicle car accidents, environmental pollution caused by several companies, or construction accidents involving multiple contractors.
The application of joint and several liability varies by jurisdiction. Some states have enacted laws that limit its application, for example, by requiring that a defendant be responsible for a certain percentage of the fault before they can be held jointly and severally liable. Others have abolished it in favor of pure several liability, where each defendant is only liable for their percentage of fault.
Joint and several liability can lead to situations where one defendant is forced to pay more than their share of damages. This is particularly contentious in cases where the ‘deep pocket’ defendant, who may not be the most at fault but has the greatest ability to pay, is left covering most or all of the damages. To address this, some jurisdictions allow for the right of contribution, where the paying defendant can seek reimbursement from other at-fault parties.
In summary, joint and several liability is a legal doctrine that allows a plaintiff to recover the total amount of damages from any one of multiple defendants found to be liable in a tort case. This ensures that the plaintiff can be fully compensated for their injuries, but it can also lead to disputes among defendants about the division of liability and payment.