The 5 Elements of Negligence (And Why It Matters)

Proving negligence is the basis for holding a company or person legally responsible after a careless action resulting in harm. It is the principle used for determining fault and accountability for careless actions which result in injury.

The U.S. legal system generally recognizes a system of proof known as “The Five Elements of Negligence.” In a trial where negligence is a factor the courtroom is instructed to assess if the following elements have been established before reaching a verdict: Duty, Breach of Duty, Cause in Fact, Proximate Cause and Damages.

In this guide we will define what negligence is and explain each element in detail and provide examples so you can see if applying them to your claim satisfies the requirements.

Negligence: In its most general sense, the law of negligence obligates people to behave in a manner within acceptable standards of safe conduct and a reasonable manner. It is important to understand that legal negligence requirements can vary among different case types and state statutes may define specific duties not recognized in other states. For example, negligence in tort law is a distinct cause of action – and allows for a plaintiff to seek the defendant compensate them after injury (both non-economic injuries and physical injury).

Additionally, in a car crash some states recognize a legal duty for motorists to help other people in need. In many states, healthcare professionals are expected to uphold a certain standard of care. It is their duty to maintain reasonable care – a failure to provide the standard of care expected can lead to claims of negligence.

Duty: A consideration in proving negligence is whether the defendant owed a duty to the injured party. Many defined relationships require people to act in a certain manner. In certain situations, people owe to another a duty of care. In order to establish negligence, the first question in a court which must be answered is whether or not the person was required to exercise reasonable care in the circumstances involved. In a suit, the judge is empowered with deciding whether the defendant had a duty of care in the circumstances. If a duty is found to be owed, the first element is established.

Breach of Duty: Failing to exercise reasonable care in fulfilling a determined duty established as owed results in a breach of duty. This is not a determination of whether a duty exists, rather a jury will determine whether the establish duty was not exercised.

Cause in Fact (Causation): The rules of negligence next require the actions in question caused the tort. In other words, did the alleged actions lead to the injury suffered by the victim. The plaintiff would be required to prove the injuries sustained by the defendant’s negligent act caused the injuries leading to the legal action. Commonly the “But For” rule is used to establish causation. Ask yourself whether the harm suffered would have happened but for the actions of the target of your suit.

Proximate Cause: To determine legal responsibility you must establish the most direct cause of the harm in question. In other words, what was the most direct action responsible for the injuries. A plaintiff needs to be able to prove that the actions of the defendant are the closest cause of the injuries sustained. The act which caused the harm should have been foreseen by the that would have resulted. For example: a party is not liable for injuries sustained resulting from actions taken as a result of an initial causation – an accident in the ambulance heading to the hospital would not have a proximate cause tied to the car accident which caused the emergency services to be called initially.

Damages: Finally, the negligence laws require a legal harm to be proven. In other words, a plaintiff in a negligence claim must show a harm was suffered in the form of personal injury or property damage. If a defendant failed to exercise reasonable care in the circumstances – but no harm was suffered – legal negligence is not established. Actual damages to the person owed a duty of care must be established for a negligence claim to have merit in a court of law.Continue reading to learn what you need to know about how the accident laws define the rules for determining accountability.

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