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What is Joint and Several Liability?
What You Need to Know

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Collen Clark Published by Collen Clark
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A plaintiff may utilize the principle of joint and several responsibilities in situations where two or more persons or organizations are said to be responsible for another’s injuries resulting from a breach of contract or a tortious wrong like negligence or assault.

I have worked with many clients who come to me asking about their rights when they have been injured due to someone else’s negligence. In this article, I will explain joint and several liability, how it works, and when they may apply to you.

Summary of the Key Findings

  • If you are sued, and the court rules in favor of the plaintiff, the court will hold you and the other parties jointly and severally liable. 
  • The plaintiff gets nothing if the other defendants in a legal case are broke and do not have insurance.
  • Joint and several liability are often used in toxic tort cases.

What Is Joint and Several Liability?

Joint and several liability is a legal term and principle that allows a court to hold multiple defendants liable for the same damages, even if they are only partially at fault [1]

In other words, each defendant is found responsible for the entire amount of damages awarded to the plaintiff, not just their share of responsibility.

3 Examples of Joint and Several Liability

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Joint and several liability can come into play in a few different ways.

1. Breach of Contract

For example, if you sign a contract with someone to build you a house, and they breach the contract by not finishing the job, you can sue them for damages. 

If the court finds that they are liable, they will be jointly and severally liable for the damages. This means you can sue either or both people if two people do something that hurts someone else for the damage done [2].

2. Toxic Torts

A person coughing while being checked up on by a doctorJoint and several liability are often used in toxic tort cases. A toxic tort is a legal claim that someone has been exposed to a hazardous substance and has been harmed as a result. For example, workers who became ill after working at multiple job sites were exposed to harmful substances, such as asbestos.

In a toxic tort case, the plaintiff may sue multiple defendants, including the manufacturer of the hazardous substance. If the court finds that any of these defendants are liable, they will be liable for the damages based on the tortious act.

3. Comparative Fault

Comparative fault, also called pure several liability, is a legal principle allowing a court to apportion responsibility for damages among multiple parties at fault. 

For example, if you are in a car accident and the court finds that you are 50% at fault and the other driver is 50% at fault, a plaintiff collects only 50% of the damages from the other driver.

“Joint and several liability differ in law from comparative fault or pure several liability, in which multiple parties are assigned responsibility for a portion of the damages in relation to the degree of fault they bear for the harm. In such cases, a plaintiff may be left to seek damages from the party that is least able to pay.”
Timothy Li, Finance Manager

How Does Joint and Several Liability Work?

A lawyer talking to a client

Joint and several liability work in a way that If two or more parties are sued for damages, they are all responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries. If one person can’t pay, the other people will have to pay more. 

The amount that each person pays may depend on how involved each person was in causing the plaintiff’s injuries.


Joint and several liability have advantages and drawbacks. The following are a few of the benefits:

  • If the responsible parties involved are responsible for something bad happening, then a joint contribution is required by each person in the group. The parties will then distribute the financial burden in a reasonable division, and each party will pay for their proportional fault. 
  • Suppose the injured plaintiff is more likely to win a money judgment if the defendant is wealthier. This is because the plaintiff can recover some of the costs of the economic damages from a financially wealthy party.


Joint and several liability have a few disadvantages:

  • If two or more parties don’t pay their share, the rest of the group has to pay more to make sure the group doesn’t go into default. 
  • Responsible parties with more money might have to pay a lot more, even if their contribution to the problem was small.

Tort Law in Joint and Several Liability

A lawyer pointing to paperworkIf more than one party did something wrong that caused damage to someone else, they could be held responsible together. But each person is independently liable for the amount of damage that their wrongful act contributed to.

In those jurisdictions where comparative negligence is recognized, which now includes California, tort liability for negligence is usually divided up according to percentages of responsibility, and joint and several liability would not apply.

However, based on my experience, it is known that the doctrine would still apply in intentional torts and breaches of certain laws (intentional torts and violations of specific statutes).

Related Articles:

The Difference Between Joint Liability and Several Liability

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A liability is joint when two or more people share the responsibility for something terrible that happened. Several liability is when each person involved is responsible for their own part in what happened. Although that is the only difference, there are also alternatives for joints that you can use.

Here are a few examples:

  • Market Share Liability: This happens when multiple producers of a good are in the market. If the court can’t figure out which manufacturer created the product that caused the harm, then this doctrine can be used to hold the manufacturers responsible based on their market share.
  • Alternative Liability: this doctrine is when two people are responsible for an injury, even if it’s impossible to know which one of them did it. 
  • Preempted Causes Or Doomed Plaintiffs: this doctrine allows companies to be held liable if they produce a product that’s so dangerous that it’s impossible to use it without harming yourself.


What does it mean jointly and severally liable?

Jointly and severally liable means that each person in a group is responsible for the entire debt or damages. If one person doesn’t pay their share, the rest of the group has to pay more to make sure the group doesn’t go into default.

What is several but not a joint liability?

Several liability is when each person involved is responsible for their own part in what happened. This is different from joint liability, which is when two or more people share the responsibility for something bad that happened.

What does it mean to be severally liable?

Being severally liable means you are responsible for your share of the debt or damages. This is different from jointly liable, which means you are responsible for the entire debt or damages.

Do Need Help With a Joint and Several Liability Claims?

If you’ve been injured and think you may have joint and several liability claims, you should speak with an experienced personal injury lawyer. A lawyer can help you investigate your claim and determine who may be responsible for your injuries. 

You can contact Schmidt & Clark, LLP for a free consultation. Our lawyers have experience handling joint and several liability claims and can help you seek contribution and get the compensation you deserve.



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