We often use the word negligence in everyday situations. We might use it casually to describe someone’s behavior, but there’s a legal definition of negligence as well that can become more complex. Negligence, in a legal sense, is when someone causes an injury or accident because of their failure to exercise reasonable care. The vast majority of personal injury cases are based on the legal theory of negligence.
If you’re hurt because someone else was careless, there could be options for you to fight for compensation for medical bills, suffering, pain, and lost wages.
The following are some of the most important aspects of legal negligence to understand.
1. The Elements of Negligence
If you’re in a legal situation where you’re trying to prove negligence, you have to go beyond showing another person was careless. As a plaintiff in a personal injury case, you have to show there were four elements that existed for a successful case.
The first is that the defendant, who is the person who injured you, owed you a duty of reasonable care.
The second is that the defendant breached the duty, and the third is that the breach caused harm to you as the plaintiff. The fourth element of negligence is that you suffered damages.
Duty in a legal situation is a legal obligation that we have to one another because of law or customs. Duty in a situation of negligence means that another party had a legal responsibility to behave in a way that was reasonably safe to avoid hurting someone else. If you’re driving, for example, all the other drivers on the roadway, as well as you have a duty to follow laws and be safe.
If someone breaches their duty, their conduct is below the owed duty of care. You have to show a defendant behaved unreasonably, given the situation.
2. Defenses in Tort Law
There are defenses that a defendant might use in a situation involving negligence.
These can include:
- Comparative negligence, where many states will limit what a plaintiff can recover based on how much he or she was responsible for the accident.
- With contributory negligence, a plaintiff is prevented from recovering any compensation in a personal injury lawsuit if they’re more than 50% responsible.
- Assumption of risk is a defense where a defendant may avoid liability if they can show that a plaintiff made a dangerous situation for themselves or assumed a certain level of risk.
- Product misuse is a way a defendant can show they aren’t liable because of an accident that happened due to the misuse of a product.
- An unrelated cause defense means the injuries or deaths that happened because of something unrelated, freeing the defendant of liability.
3. Civil Negligence vs. Criminal Negligence
Negligence in personal injury cases is civil negligence. An attorney or you, if you’re representing yourself, will have to prove a defendant was at fault for your injuries before you receive compensation. You often have to either work with an attorney to gather evidence or, again, do it on your own.
Criminal negligence is a behavior where someone ignores an apparent risk or disregards the safety and life of the people around them. There are descriptions of this type of criminal negligence in both state and federal courts.
Someone who’s behaving in a way that’s criminally negligent is behaving differently than most people would given similar situations.
An example would be leaving a loaded firearm where a child could access it.
There are some crimes that are based on the standard of being criminally negligent, like involuntary manslaughter.
Other examples of criminal negligence can include leaving your child in a hot car, texting, speeding while driving, or firing a weapon into the air in a public space or event.
The term criminal neglect can relate to criminal negligence and have similarities, but they aren’t exactly the same.
With criminal neglect, the charge is that someone is failing to care for another person who can’t take care of themselves.
4. Negligence vs. Gross Negligence
Negligence is also known as ordinary negligence. The concept is that someone’s carelessness or inattention led to the injury of another person.
Gross negligence, by contrast, is a reckless indifference to others’ reasonable safety. Gross negligence is a more severe legal concept. The claim is that the defendant was careless and also reckless, engaging in behavior that could be viewed by some as deliberate because it was so egregious.
Both negligence and gross negligence share in the concept that they involve failings in personal responsibility, causing harm or injuring another person or their property. The difference often is between whether the action or inaction was just careless or could be seen as reckless or deliberate in some way.
5. Negligence vs. Medical Malpractice
If a health care provider’s inaction or action fails to meet a medical standard of care, the behavior could be considered medical negligence. It’s medical malpractice if negligence leads to the injury of a patient.
6. Damages for Claims of Negligence
There are different categories of damages which can be awarded to injury victims involving negligence.
The first is economic damages. Economic damages are specific financial losses that you can add up by looking at bills, receipts, and similar things. Economic damages can include medical expenses and bills, rehab, and therapy expenses, lost wages, prescription medicines, and modifications to the home that may be needed to accommodate someone who’s injured.
If the case is wrongful death, economic damages can include funeral and burial expenses.
Non-economic damages are subjective and, therefore, harder to calculate. They aren’t tied to a specific bill. They’re damages that cover those costs that aren’t tangible but are sometimes even more impactful than economic damages. For example, non-economic damages can include emotional pain and suffering.
Finally, punitive damages are fairly rare, and they’re most often reserved for situations where the defendant is grossly negligent. The objective of punitive damages is to punish or penalize the defendant and discourage similar behaviors or actions in the future.