You hear the word thrown around a lot, especially in advertisements for law firms. “If you have been injured as a result of someone’s negligence, call us….”
The thing is, what exactly is negligence, and how do you know if you have been the victim of someone’s negligence? This can be a confusing thing to sort out. Without sending us all to law school, here is a brief explanation.
Theory of Law
Negligence is basically the failure to use reasonable care in your actions, resulting in foreseeable injury or harm to someone or their property. The law differentiates intentional actions from negligent actions. Most accidental injuries arise as a result of negligence, not intentional actions.
There are several threshold questions we ask when determining whether a person was negligent or not, and whether their actions will justify a lawsuit.
- Duty – did the person have a duty to act in a reasonable manner so as not to inflict injury on another? If no duty existed, there is no cause of action.
- Breach of duty – if such duty existed, was there a breach of that duty? If there was not a breach of any duty, then no lawsuit arises.
- Proximate or legal cause – was the person’s breach of duty the reason the injury was incurred?
- Actual harm – there must be some real, quantifiable harm done to the person in order for it to be actionable.
Duty Under Law
Think of “duty” in this context as part of our social contract. We all owe each other a duty to act in a reasonable manner in order to not cause injury to another. For example, we owe a duty to each other to drive according to the traffic laws and speed limits and taking into consideration the conditions of the road and weather. We owe a duty to others to not carelessly discharge a firearm into a crowd, as we can foresee what might happen.
People with special skills are held to a higher standard of care, or have a higher duty. Doctors, architects, accountants are examples of this, and if they do not act in accordance with their standard of care, they can be sued for malpractice, which is really another name for professional negligence.
Breach of Duty
Once we have established that a duty of care was owed, we then look to see if that duty was breached. In order to determine this, a court will look at the circumstances surrounding the event. A jury will be asked what a “reasonable person” would have done in like circumstances.
For instance, was it a breach of duty to drive down a winding, wet road in the dark at a high rate of speed? Was it a breach of duty to set off fireworks in a crowd on New Year’s Eve? (If someone was hurt in either case, then probably, yes, it was a breach of duty.) The finder of fact – the jury or the judge – will take a close look to determine whether a breach of duty occurred.
Proximate or Legal Cause
The issue of causation can get a little murky (even for lawyers!) because there are two prongs to the question “Did defendant’s behavior cause the injury?”
One prong is the actual cause, or cause in fact. This is the “but- for” test that is applied. But for defendant’s action, plaintiff’s injuries would not have occurred. Sometimes it is really simple: defendant was driving in a negligent manner, he lost control and crashed into plaintiff’s car, causing physical injury to plaintiff and plaintiff’s property.
The other prong of this analysis is whether the injury was proximately or legally caused by the act of the defendant. This is often much less clear – the further out the injury is from the action, the less foreseeable the injury is, and may not have been proximately caused by the event. An example of this is a scenario where a truck containing gasoline is speeding around a curve, tips over and spills gas everywhere. The gas ignites, burning a field of a farmer’s crops. In the ensuing emergency response, traffic comes to a standstill and a driver caught in the mess misses an important appointment and loses their job. You can see how the burning of the field is a foreseeable result of the gasoline truck speeding, but the loss of a job of a driver caught in the traffic is not so foreseeable.
This concept of proximate cause is really a policy decision that at some point a defendant will not be held responsible for every result of every action. That could create a legal nightmare that would not be easily untangled.
The harm that occurs as a result of someone’s negligence can take many forms. It may be physical harm to the person, such as injuries suffered in an auto accident. It may be emotional harm, such as that which occurs from seeing a loved one injured or killed. It may be harm to property, such as when someone loses control of their car and drives through your house, or the damage to your vehicle in a car accident.
The requirement that there be actual harm done as a result of someone’s negligence has changed over the years. Early in the history of the law of negligence emotional harm was less likely to be compensated because of the difficulty in proving actual harm. These days, emotional harm is easier to prove because we have the science of psychology and psychiatry to assist us in proving harm.
How Do We Prove All This?
Proving your case is your attorney’s job. They know which parties might be responsible for your injury and which parties to sue. They will know what medical evidence is necessary to prove your claim. They will know what witness testimony is necessary and what documents to subpoena. An experienced, dedicated attorney will know exactly what evidence is necessary to win your case, or move the other side to settlement. Whether your injury was the result of someone’s negligence in a vehicle or in an operating theatre, or anywhere else, you should be compensated fairly.