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Accident & Injury Law - What is Negligence

In most claims that arise from accidents or injuries -- from car accidents to "slip and fall " cases -- the basis for holding a person or company legally responsible for any resulting harm comes from a theory called "negligence."

What is "Negligence"?

Generally speaking, when someone acts in a careless way and causes an injury to another person, under the legal principle of "negligence" the careless person will be legally liable for any resulting harm. This basis for assessing and determining fault is utilized in most disputes involving an accident or injury, during informal settlement talks and up through a trial in a personal injury lawsuit.

Specifically, in negligence claims the plaintiff (the person injured) tries to show that the defendant (the person supposedly at fault):

  • Owed a legal duty of care to the plaintiff under the circumstances; and
  • Failed to fulfill ("breached") that legal duty through conduct or action (this can include a failure to act); and
  • Caused an accident or injury involving the plaintiff; and
  • Harmed or injured the plaintiff as a result.

To illustrate how these four elements work, take a hypothetical personal injury case: Don speeds through an intersection against a red light and hits a vehicle driven by Pat, who had the green light and the right of way. In a personal injury dispute based on negligence, Plaintiff Pat will need to show that:

  • As the operator of a car on public streets, Defendant Don owed all other drivers (including Plaintiff Pat) a legal duty to drive with reasonable caution under the circumstances; and
  • By speeding through the intersection and running the red light, Defendant Don failed to fulfill ("breached") that legal duty; and
  • In failing to fulfill his legal duty to drive with reasonable care under the circumstances, Defendant Don caused his vehicle to collide with Pat's car; and
  • Due to his collision with Don's car, Pat suffered injury (property damage and physical injury)

Who Might be Responsible for Negligence?

In some legal disputes that arise after an accident or injury, the concept of negligence may extend to people or entities that were not directly involved in what took place. For example, using the car accident scenario discussed above, suppose the incident occurred at 10:30 a.m. on a weekday and that Don, an employee of Acme Office Supply, was driving a company van while making a delivery to a local office building. Under a theory of negligence called "vicarious liability", not only will Don be found at fault for causing the accident with Pat, but as Don's employer Acme Office Supply also could be held legally responsible for Don's negligence in causing the car accident. This is because Acme is accountable for any carelessness on Don's part that might occur in the normal course of his employment duties, including the manner in which he drives while making deliveries for the company.

For practical purposes, in personal injury cases vicarious liability is often used to make certain that an injured person can recover his or her damages from the most financially secure and adequately insured party. In the above example, that party is more likely to be Acme than Don.

Keep in mind that the concept of negligence is not limited to the action (or inaction) of an individual. Small businesses, partnerships, organizations, and large corporations may all be held legally responsible in situations where they failed to properly ensure the safety of others. This is especially true in personal injury cases that stem from defective and dangerous products (against product manufacturers, distributors, and sellers) and in "slip and fall" cases (against commercial businesses and corporate property owners).

Negligence: Not in Every Accident or Injury Case

While the concept of negligence applies to most types of personal injury cases, certain kinds of injury claims will use a different rule of fault called "strict liability." If you are injured by a defective product, or through certain inherently dangerous activities like the shipping of toxic chemicals or the keeping of a dangerous animal, your case will likely proceed under this legal theory. While the rules are different from those in negligence cases, the good news is that when compared to negligence claims, a plaintiff in a "strict liability" personal injury case does not ordinarily need to show that the defendant was at fault -- only that the product or activity was unreasonably dangerous, and plaintiff's injuries were the result.