A: Contributory negligence is a common law doctrine that is still alive in both D.C. and Virginia. It operates as an "affirmative defense" to any negligence claim, including auto accidents. The doctrine states that, even if the accident was mainly, mostly, or almost completely, the fault of the other driver, the plaintiff loses if he was negligent at all.
Most states have abandoned this doctrine for a rule of "comparative negligence," which compares the negligence of the plaintiff and the defendant to allow for fairer verdicts.
An example will help to explain. Let's assume you have sustained $100,000 worth of injuries in a car crash that is 75% the other drivers fault and 25% your fault. In a "contributory negligence" state, the jury will be instructed to find for the defendant and you will recieve nothing. In a "comparative negligence" state, the jury will be instructed that you should recieve $100,000 discounted by your 25% negligence, and you will recieve $75,000.