What Is Negligence, Anyway?

Negligence is one of the most important concepts in a personal injury case. It’s so critical, in fact, that most of the hard work in your personal injury case will go toward establishing that the defendant’s actions amounted to negligence. If you and your attorney can’t prove negligence, then your personal injury case will fail — it’s that simple.

So, what does negligence mean in the context of an injury claim, and how do attorneys go about proving it? In this article, we’ll define negligence and go over the fundamental elements that an attorney must prove to show that a defendant was negligent.

Negligence: The Everyday Definition

One of the things that defines the legal profession is that lawyers and other legal professionals tend to use very specific (sometimes convoluted) definitions for words and terms. These definitions often differ from the way an average person would write or speak.

To understand what we mean, let’s look at the everyday, non-legal definition of negligence. When we search this word on Google, we get the following definition from Google’s dictionary function: “failure to take proper care in doing something.” That definition lines up with the way most people would use the word “negligence” in conversation.

If you think deeper about that definition, however, you’ll realize it’s quite broad. Under the ordinary definition, you could call someone negligent if they decided to get behind the wheel of a car while drunk. However, you could also use the same definition to label someone negligent if they cut their finger while chopping vegetables or forgot to lock up their house as they rushed out the door. After all, neither of those things would have happened if the person was taking the proper care.

As you can see, the everyday definition of negligence isn’t specific enough to use in civil lawsuits. If lawyers and courts used this definition, people could sue a chef for overcooking salmon or a dry cleaner for shrinking a shirt.

The Legal Definition of Negligence

Courts use a similar but much more specific definition of negligence to decide whether the defendant in a personal injury case is liable for damages. Our legal system defines negligence as “the failure to exercise the care toward others which a reasonable or prudent person would do in the same or similar circumstances.”

This legal definition may seem a lot like the everyday definition at first. However, the second part of the legal definition — the part that checks the defendant’s behavior against that of a “reasonable person” in the same situation — is very important because it distinguishes between the drunk driver and the absent-minded vegetable chopper we described above.

After all, no one is perfect, and even reasonable people make errors and do absent-minded things. Reasonable people misplace their car keys and burn toast. They don’t, however, get behind the wheel and drive drunk, because they know they could injure or kill someone by doing so.

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Four Elements of Negligence

So how do attorneys establish what a reasonable person would do in a given situation and then compare a defendant’s behavior so they can prove negligence? To create a standard procedure for proving negligence, courts have broken down the concept of negligence into four different components or “elements.” To prove negligence in a personal injury case, an attorney must prove each of these four elements.

  • Element #1: Duty of Care

    First, to prove negligence in a civil case, you must demonstrate that the defendant had a duty of care toward you. A duty of care means an obligation to act with a certain degree of reasonable caution and good sense. In general, this element is the simplest to prove since our laws already establish a duty of care for people in a wide range of situations.

    • Example: All drivers have a duty to exercise care toward others on the road — including other drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. Every driver must abide by traffic signals and laws and avoid causing unreasonable danger to others.
  • Element #2: Breach of Duty

    Once you’ve demonstrated that the defendant owed you a duty of care, you’ll need to show that the defendant breached that duty (meaning they failed to live up to their obligation to behave with reasonable care) through their actions.

    • Example: A driver runs through a red light, which violates their duty to abide by traffic laws and avoid putting others in danger.

If you can prove these two elements, then you’ve established liability, which means the person is legally responsible for the consequences of their actions. In some cases, the defendant admits they breached the standard of care. However, even when the defendant admits liability, they and their attorney can still dispute causation and damages (see below).

  • Element #3: Causation

    After proving that the defendant violated their duty of care through reckless behavior, you’ll need to show that the actions that breached the duty of care caused (or played a role in causing) the injuries or harm you’ve suffered. Proving causation requires expert testimony from a doctor who can confirm that the wreck or other event caused your injuries.

    • Example: When the driver runs through the red light, they cause a crash that leaves a victim with severe injuries — including a broken hip and cracked ribs.
  • Element #4: Damages

    Finally, once you’ve proven that the defendant’s actions caused harm to you, you’ll need to show that the harm you’ve suffered translates into an amount of money and that receiving money would help remedy the wrong.

    • Example: The victim who suffered the broken hip and cracked ribs requires emergency surgery and months of follow-up medical treatment, leaving them with tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills and lost wages.

Even once you understand the definition of negligence, proving all these four elements in court isn’t easy. The insurance company and their legal team will do everything possible to undermine your claim and raise defenses against your arguments, and if they succeed in creating doubt about any one of the four critical elements of negligence, you’ll lose your case. That’s why you should always work with an experienced personal injury lawyer when trying to show that someone’s negligent actions caused you physical and financial harm.

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Myers Law Firm: Fighting for Injured Victims of Negligence in and Around Charlotte

At Myers Law Firm, we pride ourselves on our attention to detail, compassion, and dedication to our clients. If you or a loved one suffered serious injuries in Mecklenburg County because of someone else’s negligent behavior, please contact us today. We’ll listen to your story and assess your case — all at no cost and with no commitment required.

To schedule your free initial consultation, please complete our quick and easy online contact form or call us at 888-376-2889.

The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.