Last Clear Chance Doctrine DC Car Accident
In England in 1842, a man left his donkey on the side of the road. He thought that the donkey would be safe while he entered and purchased an item from a store. The donkey was not safe. It wandered into the road, and was struck and killed by a wagon.
Does the plaintiff have the right to recover against the donkey’s killer even though the donkey was left in an unsafe situation?
To come to the right answer in the above case (Davies v. Mann (1842), 10 M&W 546, 152 ER 588), one has to look at the Last Clear Chance doctrine.
Some questions to ask are: could the defendant have avoided the accident if he had used ordinary care? Was the plaintiff negligent in leaving the donkey there?
But to understand the last clear chance doctrine, you first have to understand “contributory negligence.” Contributory negligence means if the plaintiff was at all negligent, then he or she cannot recover any damages. None. Zero. In 1991, a case was brought to the DC Court of Appeals (District of Columbia v. Brown, 589 A.2d 384 (D.C. 1991)). A man intentionally drove his shoulder into an elevator door in public housing. The door gave way, and the man, tragically, fell to his death. The court ruled that the man’s family was not entitled to compensation because he was “contributorily negligent.”
The last clear chance doctrine was developed as an exception to contributory negligence. The negligent plaintiff must prove that the defendant was the one who had the final opportunity to avoid injuring the plaintiff by using “ordinary care” or “reasonable prudence.”
To use the last clear chance rule, the plaintiff must prove that he was in immediate or actual danger and was unable to extricate him or herself from that danger; the defendant knew about the danger; and the defendant had a reasonable opportunity to avoid the accident or injury.
If the defendant could have reasonably acted to avoid injury, then even if the injury was otherwise caused in part by the plaintiff, the defendant may not assert contributory negligence or a similar defense.
Simply put, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant had the “last clear chance” to avoid harm.
While not often used in today’s legal landscape, it’s an interesting concept to think about.