‘Negligence’ Pertaining to a Personal Injury Claim
You were involved in an accident. Now you are entangled in insurance paperwork and solicitations by lawyers to handle your case. You are bound to hear a bevy of unfamiliar legal terms related to your case. One of those common terms is “negligence.” What is negligence, and what exactly does it mean?
According to Cornell.edu, negligence is the failure to take reasonable care that a prudent person would take under the same circumstances. Basically, it refers to a person’s careless or reckless actions that led to another person’s injuries or damages.
Negligence occurs in many forms, from car crashes to professional malpractice. Regardless of the specific type of case, ever since colonial times, a negligence action in the United States has had the same basic components:
- Duty: Reasonable care, which is an objective standard, is the duty that most people owe to other people. Sometimes, there is a higher duty, such as in an attorney-client matter, and sometimes there is a lower duty, such as when a trespasser is injured on another person’s land.
- Breach: If defendants fail to meet the applicable standard of care, then they have breached the legal duty. Often, as in Blyth v. Birmingham Water Works, there is an element of foreseeability: The defendant must understand that the breach of duty may result in damages.
- Cause: Causation, the link between the breach of duty and the plaintiff’s damages, is actually a two-step inquiry:
- Cause in fact: In legal terms, the plaintiff must show “but for” causation, i.e., that the injury would not have occurred “but for” the defendant’s negligence.
- Proximate cause: Proximate cause goes back to foreseeability. In one famous case, Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad, the defendant railroad company was not liable for the plaintiff’s injury that occurred when two porters pushed a man onto a moving train car, causing the man to drop a package of fireworks. The shockwave from the fireworks pushed over a pair of scales, which fell on the plaintiff. The court found that the injury was not foreseeable and the connection was too remote.
- Damages: There is no action for negligence unless the plaintiff is damaged. Damages can include both economic and noneconomic damages. Economic damages would be easily quantifiable numbers, such as medical expenses and property damage. Non-economic damages are harder to assign value to, such as pain and suffering. Punitive damages are also available in some cases.