What is “negligence” in a personal injury case?
Negligence is defined by the Legal Dictionary as:
“Conduct that falls below the standards of behavior established by law for the protection of others against unreasonable risk of harm. A person has acted negligently if he or she has departed from the conduct expected of a reasonably prudent person acting under similar circumstances.”
A simple definition of negligence doesn’t quite explain how it is used in personal injury law.
The “reasonable person” in the definition is used to compare whether or not a defendant has acted negligently. However this definition can pose problems when it’s not clear what actions a “reasonable person” would take. This is one area of law that distinguishes personal injury law from other types of law.
Lawyers use industry standards and common sense to determine what is reasonable and what a reasonable person would do.
Car wrecks, work related injuries, wrongful death suits, medical malpractice, and even criminal charges can be considered negligence. But what is the difference between civil negligence and criminal negligence?
Types of negligence:
- Criminal Negligence: A criminal case usually involves a person (or company) and the state. Criminal law is an area of law that is meant to maintain the stability of society. It is filed by a public court on the national, state, or local level. It applies to acts like murder, manslaughter, speeding, and texting while driving.
- Civil Negligence: A civil case’s primary purpose is to deal with disputes among people or organizations. Civil law is filed between two (or more) private parties. Instead of state or public officials filing the lawsuit a plaintiff who has suffered harm or loss from a negligent act hires a lawyer who files suit. Examples include car accidents, property damages, or medical malpractice. In these cases the disputes and therefore lawsuits are against an organization or individual; the government does not take action.
Tort is a Civil Wrong
Negligence falls under a part of tort law. A tort is a civil wrong. Tort is not a criminal act and must be solved in a civil court. A “wrong” causes stress or harm to another person and imposes a legal liability. However, many cases of negligence are filed in both criminal and civil courts. It is possible to sue for assault or battery.
An example of a tort:
A car crash caused by speeding, racing, or texting can all be torts. Torts that are done on purpose, such as when one person punches another it can be an intentional tort called battery.
Examples of Negligent Acts
Instances in which you or someone you know has suffered an injury or a financial loss resulting from a careless incident by a third party are generally negligent acts. For instance, you get rear ended at a stoplight, you slip and fall in a restaurant that didn’t put up a wet floor sign, your doctor accidentally prescribes you the wrong medication.
These are instances when you were owed a certain “duty of care” and that was “breached.” This “breach” “factually caused” you to suffer a loss or harm and now you require “damages” or compensation to help you heal or recover from the negligent incident.
These are the four elements of negligence:
- Duty of Care:This is the first element that must be established in any case where someone is trying to prove negligence. It is a standard of reasonable care the defendant should or should have made to reasonably prevent the plaintiff from experiencing harm or a loss. There is no strict rule that outlines a duty of care in every situation, so sometimes it depends on the lawyers’ and jury’s interpretation of a situation. One test you can use is, “Would a reasonable person know they had a duty to keep the plaintiff safe from the incidental situation.”
- Breach of Duty: Now that a duty has been established, the second step a lawyer has to make is to determine if the defendant breached this duty he or she had to the plaintiff. This is also open to interpretation and often resolved through a lawyer being able to show previous verdicts from the vault of ever increasing case law. But basically, the plaintiff has to show that the duty the defendant owed him was breached.
- Factual Causation: The third element, is to prove that the duty that was breached lead to harm or loss to the plaintiff. Although this sounds like a simple connection of cause and effect, determining which causes lead to certain effects is often disputed. For instance, an insurance company might argue that an injury you received as the result of a car accident was not actually because of the car accident, but was a preexisting condition.
- Damages: The final element in determining the outcome of a negligent case, is showing how the loss or harm requires monetary damages and compensation to help the plaintiff recover from this loss or harm. Oftentimes this will seem utterly obvious. A car wreck inevitably leads to damages, but what about libel or slander? The judge or jury would have to ask the “reasonable” question again. Would a reasonable person suffer damages from this incident?These damages include:
- economic damages (medical expenses, lost income, and property damage)
- non-economic damages (pain and suffering and mental anguish)
So to review, negligence is a tort which is a civil wrong that has to be disputed in a civil court. For negligence to exist you have to prove that the defendant owed you a duty of care, that he or she then breached, this lead to a harm or loss on your part, and resulted in the need for monetary damages or compensation.
Types of Civil Negligence
- Ordinary Negligence
- Gross Negligence
- Pure contributory negligence
- Pure Comparative Fault
- Modified Comparative Fault
Some of these systems of fault draw harsh criticism. For instance, it has been said that the system of pure contributory negligence is too harsh on the plaintiff because even the slightest amount of contributory negligence bars the plaintiff from recovery. That may be why few states use this system. These include Alabama, Washington D.C., Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia.
In contrast, the status of pure comparative fault has been criticized because it is possible even for parties are 99% at fault to recover from damages. It is thought that the lack of penalties on wrongdoing may not deter bad actors from negligent actions.
Texas’ uses the policy of Modified Comparative Fault with a 51% bar rule. Each party is held responsible for damages in proportion to the percentage they are found at fault. With the additional rule of 51% bar, a party that is more than half at fault cannot recover compensation.
Glossary of terms:
Say that a man is speeding through an intersection. A woman makes an unprotected left turn through the intersection and hits the man speeding through it. The crash was serious, and the man sustained injuries.
In a trial, the jury will decide how much the damages were worth. And in this case, the jury will also determine a percentage of fault and attribute it to each party.
Since the man was speeding, he may receive 30% of fault in causing the crash. That means he’s only able to receive 70% of the available compensation.
If the case proceeds the trial, then the jury will find the percentage of guilt each party holds. They will also determine the value of the case. Say they decide the damages are worth $100,000 – the the man who was speeding may only recover $70,000 for his injuries.
Modified comparative negligence:
Pure contributory negligence:
Under pure contributory negligence a damaged party can not recover if they are even 1% at fault.
Pure comparative negligence (fault):
In some states such as California, dog bites can fall under strict liability. In Texas, a dog bite victim has to prove that the owner “knew” that the animal had a propensity to bite or engage in aggressive behavior. Therefore, Texas courts will apply a “strict liability” rule if the dog has previously been classified as “dangerous.”
Read about how McMinn Law Firm recovered a maximum settlement, plus punitive damages for a man injured by a dog. This case involved “strict liability.”