Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select


Sometimes, a person's conduct is so reckless that it becomes the basis for a personal injury case or criminal prosecution. A person may be liable for serious injuries caused by their recklessness if they:

  1. Acted with conscious disregard for the safety of others
  2. Knew (or should have known) that their actions may cause harm to someone else and consciously disregarded that risk

There are four basic theories of liability based on the actor's mental state. Depending on the type of lawsuit, they can render a defendant liable for injuries they caused:

  1. Intent (also called “willfulness"): The person acted with the intent to cause harm
  2. Recklessness: The person knew (or should have known) that their actions might cause harm and consciously disregarded that risk
  3. Negligence: The person failed to act as a reasonably prudent person in the same or similar circumstance
  4. Strict liability: Reserved for situations where someone can be held liable for the harm they caused, no matter their mental state

Recklessness involves conduct less than actual intent to cause harm but greater than simple negligence. Recklessness means knowingly taking a risk. This is unlike negligence, which occurs when a person unknowingly takes a risk of which they should have been aware.

State laws prohibit many reckless behaviors. They look upon reckless actors as social dangers because they gamble with other people's safety. A person injured by the recklessness of another may recover compensation for any resulting:

  • Medical expenses
  • Lost wages
  • Rehabilitation
  • Pain and suffering

Recklessness may also allow recovery from certain people who are typically immune from liability for mere negligence, such as:

  • Government workers
  • Health care professionals

What Is Recklessness?

Recklessness is a state of mind determined both subjectively and objectively.

There are two types of reckless behavior. The first considers what the actor knew or is believed to have been thinking when the act occurred. This is a subjective test.

The second considers what a reasonable person would have thought in the defendant's position. This is an objective test. In both situations, the issue turns on conscious awareness. Conscious awareness is whether the person knows their actions may cause harm to another.

For example, it is reckless for a driver of a motor vehicle to intentionally cross through a highway in defiance of a stop sign or red light if a stream of traffic is approaching in both directions.

Other examples of behaviors considered risky or reckless include:

  • Drinking and driving at any time in violation of traffic laws
  • Drag racing or driving over the speed limit in a residential neighborhood
  • Using an illegal substance at a nightclub or other public area
  • Carrying a concealed weapon
  • Storing a gun in an unlocked box in a home where children are present
  • Engaging in unprotected sex when you have a known venereal disease

Elements of Recklessness

Generally, an actor's conduct is reckless if:

  1. The actor intends to commit the act in question with a high degree of awareness that it may create a risk of harm;
  2. The risk itself is an unreasonable one;
  3. The risk is substantially greater than negligent conduct; and
  4. The actor knows or has reason to believe others are present and in harm's way

Recklessness differs from negligence. Negligence consists mainly of carelessness or incompetence. Recklessness requires the conscious choice to take a particular course of action despite a high degree of awareness of the risk. Recklessness requires a further degree of risk-taking by the actor than negligence.

On one point, reckless misconduct differs from intentional wrongdoing. Under recklessness, the actor intends to commit the act but does not actually intend to cause harm to others. Instead, they may wish that the harm does not happen but have a strong reason to believe that it might.

How Recklessness Factors Into Car Accidents

Car accidents are one of the most common contexts in which recklessness takes center stage. All motorists bear a duty of care towards other road users. This responsibility encompasses:

  • Obeying traffic rules
  • Maintaining speeds within stipulated limits
  • Avoiding impaired driving from alcohol or drugs

A driver is considered reckless when they consciously disregard these duties, thereby substantially raising the risk of harm to others. Examples of reckless driving include:

  • Excessive speeding
  • Tailgating
  • Ignoring traffic signals
  • Street racing
  • Driving against traffic

Recklessness takes on an even greater significance when an auto accident occurs as a result. The law holds the reckless driver responsible for any resultant harm. Victims of the incident have legal grounds to seek compensation for:

  • Injuries
  • Pain and suffering
  • Other related losses

The Role of Punitive Damages in Recklessness Cases

Punitive damages punish the offender and serve as a deterrent against similar future misconduct. Courts typically award punitive damages in cases where the defendant's actions were extreme and outrageous.

In the context of a reckless driving accident, if the reckless behavior results in an accident leading to injury or death, the court may consider awarding punitive damages to the victim or the victim's family. This is over and above any compensatory damages that cover medical expenses, lost income, property damage, and pain and suffering.

How Insurance Companies Handle Recklessness Cases

In cases of reckless driving accidents, insurance companies play a crucial role. Recklessness, by definition, involves a disregard for the safety of others, which can complicate how insurers handle these cases. Upon the filing of a claim, the insurance company will investigate the incident, reviewing medical bills and assessing property damage. If the insured driver is found to have acted recklessly, coverage could be significantly impacted.

Insurance policies often have exclusions for intentional acts or gross negligence, which may include reckless behavior. This means that if a driver's actions are deemed reckless, their insurance might deny coverage for their liability. This leaves them personally responsible for any awarded damages. Insurance is meant to cover accidents, not intentional or grossly negligent conduct.

For victims of reckless driving, the driver's insurance may still cover their losses up to the policy's limit. However, insurers often try to minimize their payouts. It could be beneficial for victims to hire a lawyer to negotiate with the insurance company and ensure they receive fair compensation that reflects their losses.

Filing a Personal Injury Lawsuit for a Reckless Driving Accident

If the settlement offer from an insurance company does not sufficiently cover losses, or if the reckless driver was uninsured, it may be necessary for the victim to file a personal injury lawsuit. In such a lawsuit, the burden is on the victim to establish the driver exhibited recklessness. The victim also must establish this recklessness was directly responsible for the injuries sustained.

A successful personal injury claim can secure compensation for:

  • Medical bills
  • Lost wages
  • Property damage
  • Pain and suffering

It may also cover the financial implications of more serious outcomes, including amputation or traumatic brain injuries.

What if a Loved One Is the Victim of a Wrongful Death Caused by Recklessness?

In the most tragic scenarios, reckless driving can lead to fatal accidents. Should this occur, the loved ones of the deceased may have the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the reckless driver. This legal action can provide compensation to cover:

  • Funeral costs
  • Anticipated future earnings
  • Loss of companionship
  • The emotional distress associated with such a loss

In cases where the defendant's actions were particularly reckless or malicious, family members may also be eligible for punitive damages depending on your state laws.

What Happens When Recklessness Occurs in Motorcycle Accidents?

Recklessness can occur in any vehicle operation, including motorcycles. This can include behaviors such as speeding excessively, weaving through traffic, or running red lights. If a motorcyclist's reckless behavior causes an accident, they can be held legally liable for any resulting injuries or property damage.

In some cases, failing to wear a helmet where it's required by law may also factor into the legal aftermath of an accident. But typically, this is treated as a form of negligence rather than recklessness.

Have Specific Questions About Recklessness? Get Legal Advice From a Personal Injury Lawyer

An injured person can sue for personal injuries and recover compensation for a range of damages resulting from another's reckless behavior. Often, you also can recover legal costs incurred in pursuing a recklessness tort claim.

If you think you have a potential recklessness claim, consult with a skilled personal injury attorney. Many attorneys even offer a free case evaluation, so it won't cost you anything upfront to find out more about your legal claim.

Was this helpful?

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:

Next Steps

Contact a qualified personal injury attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution

Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options