No personal injury claim is ordinary. A car accident case could appear uncomplicated until you discover abnormalities in the road surface or a defective airbag.
Nearly every successful personal injury case has one common uniting factor – establishing that another party was negligent. Whether a lawsuit arises from a car accident, medical malpractice, or a slip and fall, negligence is the primary factor used to determine fault and liability.
Legally, negligence occurs when a person or entity fails to adhere to a certain standard of conduct, causing harm to others. The base negligence test asks the question, “what would a reasonable and prudent person do under similar circumstances?” For example, before a surgical procedure, the acceptable standard of medical care requires that surgeon or participating surgical team members thoroughly wash their hands. If a surgeon fails to comply with this safety protocol, resulting in an infection, their conduct could constitute legal negligence.
The Four Elements Necessary to Establish Negligence
If an injured individual wants to be financially compensated through a personal injury lawsuit, they will have to demonstrate four key elements to establish negligence: duty of care, breach of duty, causation, and damages.
An element is a required component in a legal claim. Therefore, if a plaintiff fails to establish any of the four necessary elements, their injury claim will not be successful.
Duty of Care
The first element required to establish negligence is determining whether the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care. Legally, a duty of care is an obligation to exercise a reasonable amount of care to ensure another party is not harmed. This obligation arises based on the relationship between the parties or the circumstances surrounding the injury.
For example, drivers do not have personal relationships with all other drivers, passengers, and pedestrians. Nonetheless, every individual who operates an automotive vehicle, whether it is a car, truck, or motorcycle, has a duty to operate it safely. This obligation includes maintaining the vehicle in a safe condition and obeying all applicable traffic laws.
Business owners owe those invited onto their property an obligation to keep the property free of dangerous and hazardous conditions. To comply with this duty of care, property owners should regularly inspect their premises and promptly address or repair hazardous conditions.
Breach of Duty
Once the initial element is established, proving negligence requires demonstrating that a breach of the duty occurred. When someone’s conduct deviates from what a prudent and reasonable person would do under similar circumstances, they breach their legal duty of care. In a negligence case, proving that a breach occurred is often the most challenging of the four required elements.
To illustrate a breach of duty, imagine an employee informs a shop owner that a spill occurred and an aisle is slippery and unsafe. As stated above, the property owner has an obligation to keep the property free of known hazardous conditions. If the store owner ignores the information, then the decision could be construed as a breach of duty. A jury could find that a reasonable person who knew about the dangerous condition would have the aisle cleaned to protect anyone present in the store.
The next required element is causation. To prove negligence, an injured plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s breach of duty was the cause of their injury or damages. In many cases, this is straightforward. For example, if a plaintiff suffered whiplash in a rear-end collision, the at-fault driver’s failure to stop caused the accident and subsequent injury.
Another consideration that influences determining causation is the foreseeability of the injury. In the above example, a whiplash injury is a reasonable consequence of failing to stop and rear-ending another vehicle. The breach in this example is the cause in fact – because the defendant was unable to stop, the injury occurred.
To be held liable, the conduct must also be the legal, or proximate, cause of the injury. Proximate cause referrers to conduct that will produce the foreseeable consequences without any intervening event or contributing behavior.
In the above example, the rear-end collision is also the proximate cause of the injury. However, imagine that the injured driver required emergency surgery. During the procedure, a surgeon leaves a sponge or other surgical instrument, resulting in an infection and adverse medical complications. Under these circumstances, there would be no proximate cause between the initial accident and the medical complications.
The final element necessary to establish negligence is damages. The primary reason an individual files a personal injury lawsuit is to seek financial compensation for their injury or losses. Without demonstrating actual losses, a plaintiff does not have the basis for a personal injury claim. For example, a driver can breach their duty of care and cause an accident that results in no substantial injury. If someone suffers a minor scratch or bruise, they probably will be unable to establish damages.
However, when an injury requires medical treatment, surgery, or hospitalization, a plaintiff could easily demonstrate that they sustained actual damages. Additionally, if someone must miss days, weeks, or even months of work because of their injury, they are entitled to seek monetary compensation for their lost income. In most cases, these financial costs will be evidenced by receipts, bills, statements, or testimony regarding future medical treatments or lost wages.
Economic losses are only part of the potential damages an injured plaintiff could be awarded. While more challenging to prove, pain and suffering could be a significant portion of a plaintiff’s total compensation in a personal injury lawsuit. Non-economic damages include a wide array of harm, including anxiety, physical pain, mental anguish, loss of consortium, and loss of enjoyment of life.
Establishing Negligence is Complicated and Challenging
The four elements required to establish negligence in a personal injury lawsuit are seemingly straightforward. However, proving each element is often challenging and the complexity involved depends on the case’s circumstances. No personal injury claim is ordinary. A car accident case could appear uncomplicated until you discover abnormalities in the road surface or a defective airbag that contributed to the injuries. Proving negligence in a medical malpractice lawsuit presents other hurdles – especially when a positive outcome is never guaranteed, even when no mistakes are made. When someone is injured because of another’s conduct, they need an experienced attorney familiar with tort law advocating for their just compensation.