In general, if someone’s actions caused injury or harm to another person, and the person or company acted in a way that was less than cautious, the party is likely to be legally liable for the harm which resulted. While the concept may seem straight forward, the court’s determination as to whether a person or company was negligent can be complicated. However, after reading this article our hope is that you may find it a little easier to understand how the courts make their findings on the issue.
In order to prevail against a party for a claim of negligence, the plaintiff must be able to prove four basic elements: 1) duty – that the plaintiff was owed a legal duty of some degree by the defendant; 2) breach – that the duty which was owed to the plaintiff was breached by the defendant; 3) causation – that the action or inaction of defendant was the cause of the plaintiff’s harm; 4) damages – that a harm to plaintiff actually occurred. Each of the four elements will be addressed in greater detail in the following paragraphs.
As mentioned above, a legal claim of negligence against a party requires the plaintiff to show that a duty of care was owed to the plaintiff by the defendant. Generally, a person has a duty to exercise care which a “reasonably prudent person” would in a similar situation. Put another way, a “reasonably prudent person” is someone that is acting like an average person would if they were being cautious.
While a person typically is under no duty to act in order to prevent a harm to another person from occurring, certain situations create a legal duty to act appropriately. Some of these situations are created by a special relationship between the parties (e.g. a doctor/patient relationship, a lawyer/client relationship, a bus driver/passenger relationship, or a business owner/customer relationship). Other legal duties can be created by the actions of the defendant. For example, if a person decides to drive a car, the person has a duty to drive with the care of an average person exercising reasonable care in a similar situation in order to ensure the safety of other motorists.
Once the court determines the duty of care that is owed to the plaintiff by the defendant, the next consideration is whether that duty of care was breached by the defendant. A breach of a duty of care is when the defendant fails to meet the duty of care which is owed to plaintiff and a harm to the plaintiff results. For example, if looks at their phone while driving and ends up crashing into the car in front of them, the driver has breached their duty of care because an average person who was acting cautiously would not have taken their eyes off of the road.
The third consideration of the court in a negligence claim is that of causation. Causation has two categories, actual causation and proximate causation. Both categories must be satisfied in order to prevail on a negligence claim. Actual causation is satisfied when plaintiff can prove that the defendant’s action (or inaction) caused the harm which resulted. For example, Driver A crashes into the back of Driver B because Driver A was not paying attention. The failure of Driver A to pay attention was the “actual cause” of the collision. Driver B could recover from Driver A if they could prove that Driver A caused the collision.
Proximate Causation is a little more complicated than actual causation. The general idea is that the defendant’s liability to the plaintiff needs to be limited to those harms which were proximately caused by the defendant’s actions. In other words, the harm to the plaintiff must have been a “foreseeable” result of defendant’s action or inaction. For example, if a supermarket sold bad produce to consumers that was making people sick, the supermarket would not be liable for a bicycle accident that occurred which involved an individual that was riding to the store to purchase the tainted items. A defendant is only liable for the harms which were subject to the risk that was created by his/her conduct.
The final consideration of the court in a negligence claim is that of damages. For a negligence claim to be valid, the court must be able to compensate the plaintiff for the harm which has resulted from the conduct of the defendant. This element is usually satisfied by the court making an order that money be paid to the plaintiff from defendant. For more information on damages, please see the article entitled “How to Determine the Value of your Injury Case.”
In summary, a court case involving an injury that stems from the negligence of another can seem easy, but there are some concrete elements which need to be proven in a court of law before a plaintiff can prevail. If you were injured by the negligence of another, please do not hesitate to contact our office as soon as possible. Our attorneys are highly skilled, and are available to assist you in reaching your litigation goals. Call us today!
Authored by Charles G. Hemming III
CA Bar #330660, TX Bar #24122081, AK Bar #2006058
Mr. Hemming’s practice is limited to the jurisdictions of California, Texas, and Alaska.
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