How Does Negligence Work in the Legal System?

“Negligence” is a somewhat nebulous term, especially in its formal legal context. You probably have an intuitive sense of what negligence is—the failure of a person to take a reasonable course of action—but to what extent can negligence influence the direction of a court case? When is negligence considered? And how egregious does negligence have to be to be considered legally relevant? 

Negligence in a Nutshell

Negligence is considered a “failure to exercise appropriate and or ethical ruled care expected to be exercised amongst specified circumstances.” This is a simple definition, and each word in this definition is subject to scrutiny. 

For example, what is categorized as “appropriate?” Is it appropriate for a daycare worker to have an undistracted eye on all children at all times? What is considered “ethical?” And what are “specified circumstances?” These are typically debatable, especially in the context of a specific case. 

Once negligence is evaluated, it can serve as a reason for one person to compensate another for any harm done. For example, if your negligence resulted in someone slipping and falling unnecessarily, you could be responsible for compensating them for medical costs, as well as the pain and suffering associated with that fall. 

The Elements of Negligence

Most negligence-related claims need to have four elements in play. These elements need to be individually established before an individual can be found to be negligence: 

  1. Duty. First, it needs to be demonstrated that a defendant had a specific duty to others, including the plaintiff. In some cases, this is clear-cut; for example, a driver of a motor vehicle has an established legal responsibility to operate their vehicle in a way that keeps others safe and complies with road laws. In other cases, this can be harder to establish. For example, if you consume a food product at a restaurant that is contaminated by a foreign body, whose duty is it to ensure you’re eating uncontaminated goods? Is it the restaurant? Or the original manufacturer of the food product? 
  2. Breach. Second, the courts need to establish that the defendant has somehow breached their duty. They need to have behaved in a way that deviates from what a “reasonable” person in a similar position might behave. For example, a reasonable adult wouldn’t leave a food item cooking on the stove unattended, especially with other people in the house. This, too, can get complicated, because not all people are capable of executing the same amount of reason, and because what’s “reasonable” to one person may not be reasonable to another. 
  3. Damages. Third, it needs to be shown that the incident in question resulted in damages. This is usually the most straightforward element to consider; it’s hard to argue that a car accident occurred, or that a plaintiff suffered an injury. 
  4. Causation. Finally, it must be demonstrated that the breach of duty established in the first two elements of a negligence case was the direct cause of the damages established in the third element. In other words, would these damages have happened if the duty was not breached? If not, it may be a conclusive demonstration that the defendant’s action or lack of action directly caused these damages. 

Comparative Negligence and Other Special Cases

Negligence can get even more complicated when you consider the existence of comparative negligence, and other special cases. Many states have comparative negligence laws in relation to car accidents, which establish that multiple parties can be found to be proportionately at fault for an accident. In this case, both parties may be negligent. Taking things a step further, one party may be only slightly more negligent than another. 

For example, one driver may be operating a vehicle at night with no headlights, and another driver may be drifting over the center line. If they collide, both drivers are at least partially at fault; had either been driving responsibly, the accident wouldn’t have happened. Depending on the circumstances, they may be found to each be 50 percent responsible for the accident, or authorities may decide on a 70/30 or 60/40 split. After damages are calculated, each party will be responsible for paying an amount proportional to their contribution to the negligence. 

Negligence is a vague term, and a legal concept that can be tricky to establish. If you ever find yourself involved in a car accident, a workplace injury, or some other cases that hinges on establishing your negligence, it’s important that you talk to a lawyer immediately. The same is true if you were the victim of someone else’s negligence. Only a skilled, experienced lawyer will be able to parse the complexities of your case, and help guide you to a successful resolution.

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