What are the Elements of Negligence?
Negligence is a legal theory that must be proved before you can hold a person or company legally responsible for the harm you suffered. Proving negligence is required in most claims from accidents or injuries, such as car accidents or "slip and fall" cases. Negligence claims must prove four things in court: duty, breach, causation, and damages/harm.
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.
Accordingly, negligence is a person's failure to behave reasonably to prevent foreseeable harm to likely victims. For example, a driver who collides with a pedestrian may be negligent when he or she exercises an unreasonable level of care that digresses from the ordinary prudence of a careful driver in the same circumstances. Assuming that the collision occurred because the driver was texting and failing to pay attention to the road, the injured pedestrian would have a negligence claim against the careless driver.
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:
- Duty - The defendant owed a legal duty to the plaintiff under the circumstances;
- Breach - The defendant breached that legal duty by acting or failing to act in a certain way;
- Causation - It was the defendant's actions (or inaction) that actually caused the plaintiff's injury; and
- 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 texting 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. The plaintiff must show that his or her injuries warrant payment accordingly.
Need Help Proving Fault? An Injury Lawyer Can Help
If you or a loved one has been injured due to someone else's negligence, a potential legal claim may be worth pursuing -- especially if you've racked up medical bills and missed work. Consider meeting with an experienced injury law attorney near you to learn more.
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