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What Are the Elements of Negligence?

Proving fault: elements of negligence

Negligence is a legal theory that must be proven before you can legally hold a person or entity responsible for harm you've suffered. Proving negligence is required in most claims arising from accidents or injuries, such as car accidents or slip-and-fall cases.

Negligence claims require proof of the following four things:

Under the legal principle of negligence, when someone acts in a careless way and causes an injury to another person, the careless person is legally liable for any resulting harm.

Negligence is a failure to behave reasonably to prevent foreseeable harm to possible victims. For example, a driver who collides with a pedestrian may be found negligent when they exercise a level of care that's less than that of the typical careful driver in the same circumstances. Assuming the collision occurred because the driver was texting and ignoring the road, the injured pedestrian could have a negligence claim against the careless driver.

This article discusses the elements of a negligence claim in detail. It also addresses what to do after an accident, covers comparative negligence, and discusses various scenarios in which negligence claims arise.

Elements of a Negligence Claim

To win a negligence case, the plaintiff (the injured person or their representative) must prove the following four elements to show that the defendant (the person accused of being at fault) acted with negligence:

  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 in fact the defendant's actions or inaction that caused the plaintiff's injury
  4. Damages: The plaintiff was harmed or injured as a result of the defendant's actions therefore causing damages

Element #1: Duty

When assessing a negligence claim, the first step is to determine whether 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 competent medical care. As another example, drivers are expected to operate motor vehicles safely and with a certain level of due care.

Element #2: Breach of Duty

If a duty of care is proven, the court will then look to see if the defendant breached this duty by doing or not doing something that a reasonably prudent person would do under similar circumstances. A reasonably prudent person refers to a legal standard that represents how responsible a reasonable person would act in a particular situation.

Chances are good that the defendant 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 due to their actions and would have acted differently than the defendant did in that situation.

Element #3: Causation

The third element of a negligence claim requires the plaintiff to show that the defendant's negligence caused their injury.

For example, a motorist who is texting and driving isn't responsible for an unrelated fender bender that happens across the street. The texting driver is negligent, but that negligence didn't cause the fender bender.

Another aspect of the element of causation examines whether the defendant could reasonably have foreseen that their actions might cause an injury. This is called proximate cause. If the defendant's actions somehow cause the plaintiff injury through a random, unexpected act of nature, the injury may be deemed unforeseeable. In that case, the defendant won't be held 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 their injury. Compensation usually consists of a monetary payment for expenses like medical care or property repair. The plaintiff must show that their injuries warrant payment.

Dealing with Insurance Companies After an Accident

A car accident is a common scenario giving rise to a negligence claim. After a car accident, the involved parties usually contact their insurance companies to report the accident. This initiates the claim process.

Insurance adjusters assess the property damage and any potential personal injuries. However, insurance companies often aim to minimize payouts. That's why it's best to consult with a car accident lawyer before discussing the specifics of an accident or your injuries with an insurance company. A lawyer can help you establish the elements of negligence and prove them to the insurance company.

Get a Copy of the Police Report After an Auto Accident

Police reports are key pieces of evidence for establishing negligence in car accident cases.

These reports contain crucial details about:

  • The accident scene
  • Witness statements
  • Potential traffic violations
  • In some cases, the officer's opinion as to who was at fault

For instance, if a driver runs a red light, the responding officer will note this in their police report. This information provides crucial evidence of the driver's negligence. Obtaining a copy of the police report is a critical step in the process of making a car accident claim.

What Is Comparative Negligence?

Comparative negligence is a principle of negligence law that assesses the degree of fault of each party in an accident. It recognizes that both parties may bear some responsibility for the accident.

For example, in a car accident, one driver had the right of way but exceeded the speed limit, while the other failed to yield. Comparative negligence can impact the amount of damages an accident victim can claim and might reduce the compensation proportional to their degree of fault.

Why Do I Need a Car Accident Attorney?

Car accident attorneys play a significant role in personal injury claims. They can help gather and analyze evidence to prove the at-fault driver's negligence, including:

  • Police reports
  • Medical records
  • Witness statements

They can also negotiate with insurance companies to ensure that accident victims receive fair compensation for their medical expenses and any property damage resulting from the car crash.

Role of Traffic Laws in Establishing Negligence

Traffic laws define the duties and responsibilities of motorists. When drivers disobey these laws, such as by not following speed limits or ignoring a red light, their behavior can be evidence of negligence. A police officer's report indicating a traffic violation can be vital in proving the at-fault driver's breach of duty.

Medical Records and Proving Damages

Medical records are crucial in documenting the injuries suffered by accident victims. These records provide a timeline of the victim's medical treatment, detailing the extent and severity of the injuries, which can be tied back to the accident. Medical records are valuable in substantiating a claim for medical expenses and other damages in a personal injury case.

Wrongful Death Claims

In severe cases where the negligence of a motorist results in a fatality, the victim's family might have a wrongful death claim. Car accident lawyers who handle wrongful death cases can help the family seek compensation for their loss.

When it comes to wrongful death cases stemming from car accidents, below are the key aspects to consider.

Establishing Negligence

As with other personal injury claims, a wrongful death claim hinges on proving negligence.

The family of a motor vehicle fatality must show that:

  • The at-fault driver had a duty to operate their vehicle in a safe manner
  • The driver breached that duty (e.g., by speeding, drinking and driving, or failing to yield)
  • This breach directly caused the fatal accident

Police reports, witness statements, and accident reconstruction can establish this negligence.

Calculating Damages

Wrongful death claims seek compensation for both economic and non-economic damages. Economic damages include quantifiable losses like:

  • Funeral and burial expenses
  • Lost income the deceased would have earned
  • Medical expenses incurred before the death

Non-economic damages are more challenging to quantify and cover losses such as pain and suffering and loss of care and companionship. Each state has its own laws on what damages a plaintiff can recover in a wrongful death case.

Statute of Limitations

All states have a time limit, or statute of limitations, for filing a wrongful death claim. The time limit usually starts from the deceased person's death date and varies by state. If you don't file your lawsuit within the statutory period, you lose your right to file the lawsuit.

Proper Parties

personal representative is appointed to bring a wrongful death action. A personal representative is a person or entity responsible for managing the deceased's estate. Often, the personal representative brings the wrongful death action on behalf of surviving relatives, such as a spouse, children, or parents.

Need Legal Advice? A Personal 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. Get a free case evaluation from an experienced injury law attorney near you to learn more. A personal injury lawyer can give you legal advice and help you get the best outcome possible.

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