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California Negligence Law: FAQ

Caught in L.A. beach traffic on the 10, you're forced to brake when a car suddenly cuts in front of you to catch the exit to the 405. The driver behind you was speeding, and was not able to stop in time -- hitting you with such force that you've sustained some serious injuries. You'd like to recoup some of your medical expenses. Read on to learn about some of the key issues involved in California negligence actions.

How Do I Know If I Am Entitled to Recover?

To recover money damages for an injury caused by the defendant's negligent conduct, you must show:

  1. The defendant was negligent; and
  2. This negligence caused your injury.

How Do I Know If the Defendant Was Negligent?

To address the first of the two requirements above, let's first discuss the concept of negligence. Negligence can be a confusing area of law to define, but it essentially refers to a legal theory that covers situations where a person does something (or fails to do something) that a "reasonably prudent person" would not have done under similar circumstances.

Who is the Reasonably Prudent Person?

It is important to understand that the "reasonably prudent person" does not refer to an actual person, but instead refers to a legal standard -- an ideal, representing how the average or typical person would act under the circumstances at issue. Because it is a legal standard that is supposed to represent everyone, it does not take into account the defendant's specific skills, intelligence, or abilities.

What Role Does the "Reasonably Prudent Person" Play in a Negligence Case?

As discussed earlier, negligence occurs when someone does something that the "reasonably prudent person" would not do in the same situation. In other words, ask yourself:

Would the average person -- in the same situation and knowing the same things the defendant knew at the time -- have known that someone might have been injured as a result of his or her actions (or inaction)?

If the answer to that question is "yes" (and the defendant could have reasonably avoided doing the actions that caused the injury), then the defendant may have acted negligently by not avoiding the action that caused the harm.

Is a Child Held to the Same "Reasonably Prudent Person" Standard as an Adult?

A minor is not held to the same standard of conduct as an adult. Remember that for adults, the legal standard does not take into account any characteristics specific to the defendant. Minors, however, are required to exercise the same amount of care that other minors of the same maturity, intelligence, and capacity would exercise under similar circumstances. In other words, when determining if a child's actions were negligent, the jury generally considers the child's age and life experience.

How Do I Show the Defendant's Negligence Caused My Injury?

Moving on to the second major issue in a negligence case, you must show that the defendant's negligence caused your injury. It may seem obvious that the defendant was at fault in your case, but to recover damages, you must show that the defendant's negligence was a substantial factor in causing your injury. Therefore, it may be difficult to recover from the defendant if your injury was due in most part to circumstances having nothing to do with the defendant's negligence.

What if There Is More Than One Cause of an Injury?

There may be more than one cause involved in an injury. When two or more people each act negligently, and somehow their actions combine to contribute to or cause an injury, both parties are generally considered to be at fault. The jury then assigns each party a percentage of responsibility for the injury.

Can I Still Recover If I Was Also At Fault?

In some states, an injured person may not recover if he or she is found to have contributed to the injury in any way. In California, however, a plaintiff's own negligence does not always prevent them from recovering damages. The plaintiff may still recover damages if he or she is found to be partially at fault, and the jury will merely reduce the plaintiff's award according to his or her percentage of fault.

More Information

Negligence actions involve many complicated issues and legal theories. Read up on the elements of a negligence claim (what exactly one must prove to win), as well as more general information, by checking out FindLaw's negligence section. Also, because negligence cases can be so complex and the specific circumstances of each case play such an important role, you may want to consider consulting an experienced personal injury attorney.

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