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Proving Fault: What is Negligence?

In most claims that arise from accidents or injuries -- from car accidents to "slip and fall" cases -- the basis for holding a person or company legally responsible for any resulting harm comes from a theory called "negligence."

Generally speaking, when someone acts in a careless way and causes an injury to another person, under the legal principle of "negligence" the careless person will be legally liable for any resulting harm. This basis for assessing and determining fault is utilized in most disputes involving an accident or injury, during informal settlement talks and up through a trial in a personal injury lawsuit.

Elements of a Negligence Claim

In order to win a negligence case, the plaintiff (the person injured) must prove the following four elements to show that the defendant (the person allegedly at fault) acted negligently:

  1. Duty - The defendant owed a legal duty to the plaintiff under the circumstances;
  2. Breach  - The defendant breached that legal duty by acting or failing to act in a certain way;
  3. Causation  - It was the defendant's actions (or inaction) that actually caused the plaintiff's injury; and
  4. Damages - The plaintiff was harmed or injured as a result of the defendant's actions.

Element #1: Duty

When assessing a negligence claim, the first step is to look to see whether or not the defendant owed the plaintiff a legal duty of care. In some circumstances, the relationship between the plaintiff and defendant might create a legal duty -- for instance, a doctor owes a patient a legal duty to provide him or her with competent medical care. Or, the defendant may owe the plaintiff a legal duty to act with reasonable care in a certain situation -- as is the case when one is expected to operate a motor vehicle safely and with a certain level of due care.

Element #2: Breach of Duty

Next, the court will look to see whether the defendant breached this duty by doing (or not doing something) that a "reasonably prudent person" would do under similar circumstances. The term "reasonably prudent person" refers to a legal standard that represents how the average person would responsibly act in a certain situation. Stated simply, the defendant likely will be found negligent if the average person, knowing what the defendant knew at the time, would have known that someone might have been injured as a result of his or her actions -- and would have acted differently than the defendant did in that situation.

Element #3: Causation

The third element requires that the plaintiff show that the defendant's negligence actually caused his or her injury. Sure, someone might be acting negligently, but the plaintiff can only recover if this negligence somehow causes the injury. For example, it wouldn't be fair to sue someone who was negligently texting and driving for a totally unrelated fender bender that happened just across the street -- just because the driver was negligent.

Another aspect of this element looks at whether the defendant could reasonably have foreseen that his or her actions might cause an injury. If the defendant's actions somehow caused the plaintiff injury through a random, unexpected act of nature, the injury would most likely be deemed unforeseeable -- and the defendant will not likely be found liable.

Element #4: Damages

The final element of a negligence case is damages. This element requires that the court be able to compensate the plaintiff for his or her injury -- usually through monetary compensation for expenses such as medical care or property repair.

Putting the Elements Together: A Negligence Hypothetical

To illustrate how these four elements come together to make a negligence claim, here is a hypothetical personal injury case:

Defendant Don speeds through an intersection against a red light and hits a vehicle driven by Plaintiff Pat, who had the green light and the right of way. To win a personal injury lawsuit based on negligence, Plaintiff Pat will need to show that:

  1. As the operator of a car on public streets, Don owed all other drivers (including Plaintiff Pat) a legal duty to drive with reasonable care under the circumstances;
  2. By speeding through the intersection and running the red light, Don failed to fulfill ("breached") that legal duty;
  3. By breaching his legal duty to drive with reasonable care under the circumstances, Don caused his vehicle to collide with Pat's car; and
  4. Due to his collision with Don's car, Pat suffered an injury (property damage and physical injury).

More Information

As mentioned earlier, negligence is a confusing and complicated area of law. Check out FindLaw's section on negligence, to learn more about the topic, in general. You can also learn more about specific types of claims by browsing our sections on personal injury, medical malpractice, and car accident liability.

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