The doctrine of contributory negligence is one of the most important rules in English law. It reduces the amount of compensation payable to victims of wrongs by a percentage of the total award where the victim is partly to blame for his or her own injury.

Examples of conduct that is likely to constitute contributory negligence include failing to wear a seatbelt while a passenger in a motor vehicle, failing to check the depth of a swimming pool before diving into it, and crossing a road without looking for oncoming traffic.

Because the doctrine of contributory negligence deals with everyday situations, it is frequently considered by the courts, and relatively small adjustments in its scope can have sizeable financial consequences, most obviously for wrongdoers and victims, but also for the size of the liability insurance premiums that people generally have to pay. Although academic writing and judicial decision-making regarding the contributory negligence doctrine are often heavily influenced by perceptions about its practical operation, remarkably little is known about how it works 'on the ground'.

Thus, the purpose of the proposed research is to investigate how the doctrine is applied in the English courts. Specifically, we want to discover: (1) how frequently the doctrine applies; (2) the precise extent to which compensation is reduced when it applies; (3) whether the doctrine operates differently in different contextual settings (for example, is the doctrine handled in the same way by the courts in medical negligence cases as it is in workplace accident cases?); and (4) the degree of control that appellate courts exert over trial judges' deployment of the doctrine. These are all important issues regarding the doctrine of contributory negligence about which next to nothing is known.

The first stage of this project has now been published: James Goudkamp and Donal Nolan, ‘Contributory Negligence in the Twenty-First Century: An Empirical Study of First Instance Decisions’ (2016) 79 Modern Law Review 575–622.