What Are Joint and Several Liability?

Personal Injury Lawyer

Joint and several liability is a theory of liability under which two or more defendants can be held independently liable for the full amount of damages awarded to the plaintiff. This means that if a plaintiff sues multiple defendants and obtains monetary damages, she can collect the entire amount of the judgment from any one defendant. This is the case even if each defendant is only partially responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries. If the plaintiff does collect from only one defendant, that defendant can seek contribution from the other responsible defendants. 

For example, if a plaintiff wins a monetary judgment of $100,000 against four defendants that are jointly and severally liable and each defendant was found to be 25% at fault for the plaintiff’s injuries, the plaintiff can collect the full $100,000 from any one of the defendants. A plaintiff might want to collect from one defendant if only one is fully insured or has sufficient assets to pay the judgment. That defendant will have to pay the entire judgment but can then seek contribution from the remaining three defendants. 

Joint and several liability reduces the risk that the plaintiff will not be able to recover some or all of the judgment. Several defendants might be judgment proof, meaning the plaintiff cannot collect from them because they have no assets. Rather than shifting the risk of insolvent or uninsured defendants to the plaintiff, joint and several liability shifts the risk to the other at-fault defendants. 

Only seven states follow pure joint and several liability. Others follow either pure several liability or a modified version of joint and several liability. Be sure to check which theory your state follows. 

Several Liability 

Fourteen states follow a pure several liability theory. Under a pure several liability theory, each defendant is only responsible for the amount of damages that corresponds to its percentage of fault for the plaintiff’s injuries. The plaintiff is therefore responsible for joining all potentially liable defendants in the lawsuit. For example, if a plaintiff obtains a judgment of $100,000, a defendant that is found to be 60% liable for the plaintiff’s injuries will only be responsible for paying $60,000 of the judgment. If that defendant is uninsured and the plaintiff cannot collect from them, the plaintiff will not recover that $60,000. 

Modified Joint and Several Liability 

Twenty-nine states follow a modified version of joint and several liability. Under this theory, each defendant can be held liable for the entire amount of the judgment only if their fault for the plaintiff’s injuries is found to be above a certain percentage. For example, if a plaintiff receives a $100,000 judgment against four defendants, only those defendants who are found to be more than 50% at fault for the plaintiff’s injuries can be held responsible for the entire $100,000. If defendants 1 and 2 are found to each be 10% at fault, defendant 3 is found to be 55% at fault, and defendant 4 is found to be 25% at fault, the plaintiff can recover the entire $100,000 from defendant 3 only. Defendant 3 can then seek contribution from the other three defendants. 

Thanks to the personal injury lawyer at Eglet Adams for their insight on joint and several liability.