Joint and several liability is a legal term describing a situation in which multiple parties may be found wholly liable for damages, regardless of the actual responsibility shared by each individual party. In other words, one individual can be found and held responsible for 100% of damages, even if that individual was in actuality only responsible for causing 10% of the damages. Joint and several liability is often considered by many to be a controversial practice in the jurisdictions that utilize it due to the fact that all parties may be held responsible for the entire amount of damages, regardless of their actual responsibility.
There are three main types of liability. The first is known as joint liability and occurs when two or more people jointly share the full responsibility for an obligation. An example of joint liability would be when a husband and a wife purchase a vehicle and both of their names are on the vehicle purchase loan. If either the husband or the wife should pass away, the surviving person would still be responsible for the full amount of the loan.
The second type of liability is referred to as several liability, which means that all parties are liable separately. In several liability, each party is only responsible for their portion of the damages or obligation. If two individuals are found guilty of causing damage, but a judge or jury determines that one person is responsible for only 20% of the damage, that individual would only be liable to pay up to 20% of the damages.
Joint and several liability is a combination of the first two types of legal liability in which the liable parties may be found responsible either as one party or as individual parties. However, if one party is found liable then all parties are fully responsible for any and all damages. This has led many detractors of the joint and several liability system to refer to it as the “deep pockets” rule, since it often encourages litigants to seek out and sue defendants that are able to pay for the damages, regardless of responsibility.
In a well known case in the United States, a major amusement park was forced to pay for 86% of the damages incurred by a guest who was injured in the park, even though the park was found to be only one percent responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries. The plaintiff herself was found to be responsible for 14% of her injuries and her fiancé was found to be 85% responsible. Since the plaintiff’s fiancé was unable to pay for the damages, the amusement park, being the only solvent party among those found liable, was responsible to pay the one percent that it was found liable for and the 85% that the plaintiff’s fiancé was responsible for.
Tort reform advocates often cite this case as proof that the system of joint and several liability needs to be eliminated because the amusement park paid for an overwhelming majority of the damages, even though it was only responsible for one percent of the plaintiff’s injuries. Other people believe that the system of joint and several liability helps to protect the ability of a victim to receive compensation, especially when one more of those liable are unable to pay for damages.