If more than one defendant is found to have contributed to a plaintiff’s injury, who is responsible for paying for the damages? What if one defendant is unable to pay? States have taken different approaches in answering these questions. Generally, a state will follow one of three approaches when distributing the financial liability of defendants: joint liability, several liability, or joint and several liability.
If a state uses a system of joint liability, each defendant is liable up to the total amount of the financial obligation. For example, if a husband and wife are jointly liable for a debt, each person is responsible up to the full amount. If the husband disappears, dies, or declares bankruptcy, the wife remains liable for the full amount. In contrast, in a state following a system of several liability, the defendants are only liable for their respective portion of the damages.
The legal concept of joint and several liability is different in that it creates a scenario where each defendant in a legal action (assuming there is more than one defendant) is responsible for the entire amount of damages being pursued by the plaintiff, regardless of the individual share of damages actually caused by each defendant. Supporters of Joint and Several Liability argue that this approach allows victims to be fully compensated, even if one of the defendants is unable to pay his or her share of the liability. Under joint and several liability, if one defendant is not able to pay, the other defendants are liable for the entire judgment amount. Critics of joint and several liability refer to this approach as the “deep pocket” rule because of the potential to quickly turn a lawsuit into a search for the defendant with the “deepest pockets.” Because of potential for an unfair result, and in response to tort reform efforts, several states have limited the applicability of joint and several liability.
Click here to see a comparative chart of joint and several liability systems for all 50 states. For joint and several liability information for a specific state, click on any of the states below.