Negligence is an important legal concept, particularly when it comes to personal injury law. If someone is injured in an accident, they might file a lawsuit against another entity or individual, claiming negligence by the other party. The other party failed to exercise a reasonable standard of care in the given circumstances, or at least that’s the claim.
Someone can fail to follow a standard of care through their actions but also their inaction.
There are certain elements that have to be proven to show negligence in a personal injury case.
The following are six things important to understand negligence under the law.
1. An Overview of Negligence
The law of negligence means that you’re required to behave in a way that follows certain conduct standards. If your actions or someone else’s actions violate those standards, under the law, the person is required to compensate anyone injured as a result.
In tort law, negligence is a cause of action. Tort law defines negligence as behavior falling below the standard established legally for the protection of others against an unreasonable risk of harm.
2. Elements of Negligence
If a plaintiff is going to win a negligence lawsuit, they have to prove all of the necessary elements.
The elements of a negligence case include:
- Duty of care—the outcome of some negligence cases depends on whether the defendant owed a duty to whoever the plaintiff is. The duty arises when the law recognizes there’s a relationship between a defendant and a plaintiff, requiring the defendant to behave in a certain way.
- Breach of duty of care—once you prove someone owed you a duty of care, negligence in a legal sense requires that you show the negligent party breached their duty. Defendants breach duty when they don’t exercise reasonable care.
- Cause of the injury—another element of negligence that has to be proven is that the actions of the defendant did cause the injury for the plaintiff. You’ll sometimes hear this called but-for causation, meaning that if it weren’t for the actions of the defendant, the injury of the plaintiff wouldn’t have occurred.
- The proximate cause of harm—a defendant in cases of negligence is only responsible for harms they could have foreseen. If a defendant causes damages outside the scope of risks of what they could have foreseen, then a plaintiff can’t prove the actions of the defendant were the proximate cause of damages.
- Damages—a plaintiff in a case of negligence has to prove a legally recognized harm, which is usually a physical injury to either a person or property, but often both. It’s not sufficient to show a defendant didn’t exercise reasonable care. There must be actual damages stemming from the failure to exercise reasonable care.
3. Standard of Care and a Reasonable Person
Negligence is an action or a failure to act that causes harm, but of course, none of us are perfect. With that in mind, one element that separates accidents from negligence is what’s mentioned above—the standard of care required in any given situation. If someone doesn’t follow the proper standard of care for a situation they’re in, then they may be found liable for injuries that result.
A driver, for example, is required to show the same care when behind the wheel that a reasonable person would in a similar situation. This means paying attention to other drivers and pedestrians and obeying all traffic laws.
The “reasonable person” is a legal creation. The person is actually an ideal of how a normal person would behave in a given situation. It’s an objective test, not taking into account the particular abilities of a defendant.
A jury can decide whether a defendant behaved as a reasonable person would have, in addition to the other required elements in a negligence case.
4. Defenses to Claims of Negligence
Defendants have to try and negate the elements of a cause of action by the plaintiff to defend against a negligence suit.
There are certain legal doctrines that a defendant might rely on.
One is contributory negligence. Contributory negligence is one of the more common defenses in claims. Contributory negligence means a plaintiff’s own behavior went below a certain standard needed for their protection. In this legal defense, the failure of a defendant to behave in a certain way combined with the negligence of the defendant led to harm.
Basically, to put this even more simply, this means a plaintiff probably wouldn’t have been hurt if they hadn’t also been negligent.
Comparative negligence is a concept that can reduce the recovery of a plaintiff by the percentage of the plaintiff at fault for their damages.
There are three types of comparative negligence. Pure comparative negligence is when a plaintiff is awarded a percentage of the damages based on the amount the defendant is responsible for.
In modified comparative negligence, a plaintiff can recover damages only if their negligence is equal to or less than the negligence of the defendant.
Slight-gross negligence means plaintiffs can only receive damages if their negligence is considered slight, while the defendant’s is considered gross.
5. Proof in a Negligence Case
Negligence cases can be proven through direct or circumstantial evidence. Evidence that comes from a witness, videos, or photos is direct. Circumstantial evidence requires that someone who’s a fact-finder draws inferences based on the evidence available.
Some plaintiffs might rely on a legal doctrine which is res ipsa loquitur, which means the “thing speaks for itself.” Under this theory, a jury in a case of negligence can infer a defendant behaves negligently even when there’s no proof.
6. Negligence Cases Have a Statute of Limitations
A statute of limitations is the time period in which you can file a lawsuit. For civil cases, the statute of limitations can vary depending on the type of case and the state. In many states, the statute of limitations for a personal injury case involving negligence is two years, but it can be shorter.
If you’re hurt and you believe it’s due to the negligence of another person, it’s important to speak to a lawyer soon after the accident because of the statute of limitations.