Elements of a Negligence Case
For a plaintiff to win a negligence lawsuit, they must prove all of the "elements." One of the elements is "damages," meaning the plaintiff must have suffered injuries or loss for the defendant to be held liable. Even if you can prove that the defendant was negligent, you may not be successful in your negligence claim lawsuit if that negligence caused you no harm.
Juries are instructed to compare the facts, testimony, and evidence in determining whether the following elements were satisfied:
These five elements of a negligence case are explained in greater detail below.
1. Duty of Care
The outcome of some negligence cases depends on whether the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff. A duty arises when the law recognizes a relationship between the defendant and the plaintiff requiring the defendant to act in a certain manner. A judge ordinarily determines whether a defendant owed a duty of care to a plaintiff, and will usually find that a duty exists if a reasonable person would find that a duty exists under similar circumstances.
For example, if a defendant was loading bags of grain onto a truck and struck a pedestrian with one of the bags, the first question is whether the defendant owed a duty to the person. If the loading dock was near a public place, such as a public sidewalk where the pedestrian was walking by, then the court will likely find that the defendant owed a duty to the pedestrian.
On the other hand, if the pedestrian was trespassing on private property and the defendant didn't know that the individual was present at the time of the accident, then the court may be less likely to find that the defendant owed a duty.
2. Breach of Duty of Care
It's not enough for a person to prove that another person owed them a duty. The personal injury lawyer must also prove that the negligent party breached their duty to the other person. A defendant breaches such a duty by failing to exercise reasonable care. The issue of whether a defendant breached a duty of care is decided by a jury as a question of fact. In the example above, a jury would decide whether the defendant exercised reasonable care in handling the bags of grain near the pedestrian.
3. Cause in Fact of the Injury
Under the traditional rules of legal duty in negligence cases, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant's actions were the actual cause of the plaintiff's injury. This is often referred to as "but-for" causation, meaning that, but for the defendant's actions, the plaintiff's injury would not have occurred.
The pedestrian in the example above could prove this element by showing that but for the defendant's negligent act of tossing the grain, the injury victim would not have suffered harm.
4. Proximate Cause of Harm
Proximate cause relates to the scope of a defendant's responsibility in a negligence case. A defendant in a negligence case is only responsible for those harms that the defendant could have foreseen through their actions. If a defendant has caused damages that are outside of the scope of the risks that the defendant could have foreseen, then the plaintiff cannot prove that the defendant's actions were the proximate cause of the plaintiff's damages.
In the example described above, the pedestrian would prove proximate cause by showing that the defendant should have foreseen the harm that would have resulted from the bag striking the individual. On the contrary, if the harm is something more remote to the defendant's act, then the plaintiff will be less likely to prove this element. Assume that when the pedestrian is struck with the bag of grain, the pedestrian's bicycle was also damaged.
Three days later, the pedestrian drives to a shop to have the bicycle fixed. On the way to the shop, the pedestrian is struck by a car. Although that harm may be within the scope of the harm that the defendant risked by their actions, the defendant probably could not have foreseen that the pedestrian would be injured on the way to having the bicycle repaired three days later. Hence, the injury victim wouldn't be able to satisfy the element of proximate causation for the car accident
5. Damages and Harm
A plaintiff in a negligence case must prove a legally recognized harm, usually in the form of physical injury to a person or to property, like a car in a car accident. It's not enough that the defendant failed to exercise reasonable care. The failure to exercise reasonable care must result in actual damages to a person to whom the defendant owed a duty of care and a personal injury claim must be brought to court within the appropriate time frame.
Attorney To Help Prove the Elements of Your Negligence Case
Even if you're confident that all the elements of a negligence case are present, it takes a skilled lawyer to make a compelling case and ultimately win. A skilled attorney will understand which evidence will make or break your case, how to properly calculate damages for things like emotional distress and medical bills, and how to negotiate a settlement. Get started today by reaching out to a local law firm with personal injury attorneys.
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