Understanding the Definition of Negligence and Other Rules of Liability

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Negligent conduct falls short of what a reasonable person would do to protect another person from foreseeable risk of harm. In personal injury cases, the legal definition of negligence states that someone can be held liable for injuries and property damage, if their conduct falls short of reasonable standards.

What is reasonable conduct?

To determine whether conduct is reasonable or not, you must examine the circumstances that led to an injury, then decide what a reasonable person would have done under those same circumstances.

Whatever actions you think would have been reasonable under those same circumstances is the acceptable conduct. Actions that were not reasonable under those circumstances can be classified as unacceptable, or negligent conduct.

There Is No Formula for Negligence

If we could assign negligence automatically, using a set formula, personal injury claims and lawsuits wouldn't be necessary. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Opinions on reasonable conduct vary from person to person, and are often influenced by self-interest.

Sometimes, negligence is so clear it can't be argued. When that occurs, insurance companies readily compensate victims for their injuries. Unfortunately, most cases aren't so clear. In these cases, the victim must show that the responsible person's actions were unacceptably negligent.

How to Determine Negligent Conduct

There is no chart or law you can reference to determine whether, under specific circumstances, a person's conduct was reasonable or not. Rather, the courts look at what's called the "totality of the circumstances" to determine whether a person's conduct was negligent.

The definition of negligence takes into account the circumstances surrounding the act which caused injuries. A close review of those circumstances usually reveals evidence useful in determining who was negligent. Sometimes, those determinations are difficult to make. What might be reasonable conduct for one person, may not be reasonable for another.

Example: Negligence While Driving

Sally was driving down the interstate on her way to work early one morning. The fog was heavy, and Sally turned her car's fog lights on. The usual speed limit on the interstate is 65 miles per hour. On that day, however, many of the motorists had slowed their speed to less than 40 miles per hour due to the fog. Sally did the same.

As Sally began to exit the interstate, she suddenly and without warning ran into the back of Sam's pickup truck. At the time of impact, Sam did not have any of his truck lights turned on. Sam and his passengers were injured. They sued Sally, claiming she was negligent by following too closely.

In most circumstances, a driver who runs into the rear of another vehicle is considered negligent for following too closely. But, this case deserves a closer look...

Sally was driving at 40 miles per hour as a safety precaution. Going that slowly on an interstate in normal weather conditions might have been inappropriate, even dangerous. But in the fog, it was the safe and reasonable thing to do. If Sally had slowed down much more, she risked being rear-ended by another vehicle.

Sally later testified that she didn't see Sam's pickup truck. Either the pickup's lights weren't on, or she couldn't see them. If she had seen the lights on Sam's truck, she would have stopped well before striking it.

The task before the court was applying the definition of negligence to this auto accident. The court had to answer questions like:

  • How would a reasonable driver have acted under similar circumstances?
  • What would have been reasonable conduct?
  • Was Sally's conduct negligent?

Sally was found not to be negligent. The court took into account the totality of the circumstances, and determined Sally acted reasonably by slowing down to a safe speed. Due to the heavy fog, Sally couldn't, or shouldn't have known there was a car in front of her.

Sam hadn't turned on his truck's lights. If he had, Sally might have avoided running into him. The court found that Sally did everything a reasonable person should have done under the circumstances.

"By a preponderance of the evidence"

Establishing negligence is the first part of the process for recovering compensation. After that, a preponderance of the evidence must show that the negligence caused your injuries.

In a personal injury case, proving negligence by a preponderance of the evidence means the victim only has to show the weight of their evidence is at least 51 percent better than the defendant's. In other words, the majority of evidence must show the responsible party was negligent.

The burden of proof in a civil case (like an injury lawsuit) is much less than in a criminal case. In a criminal case, the defendant's guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury must be 99 percent sure the defendant committed the crime. Any less than that, and the defendant must be found not guilty.

Direct and Proximate Cause

The evidence must show that the at-fault party was primarily responsible for the accident. It also must show that the responsible party's negligence was the direct and proximate cause of your injuries.

Proving a person's conduct was unacceptably negligent, by itself, is not enough to win a personal injury case. You must also prove the conduct was the direct and proximate cause of your injuries. Keep in mind that more than one person may have caused the accident, and thus, there may be more than one person responsible for your injuries.

Tangible and Intangible Damages

Let's assume you proved the responsible party's conduct was negligent, and that the negligent act directly caused your injuries. The next step is to prove your damages. Damages is a catch-all term for all the financial and emotional costs related to your injuries.

Damages are often the most important part of a personal injury case. If you can't prove the financial and emotional costs related to your injuries, it doesn't matter how negligent the at-fault party was, you don't have a case.

In a personal injury claim, damages can be tangible and intangible. Tangible damages include all the money spent treating your injuries, and the value of your damaged property. Intangible damages include all your emotional distress, mental anguish, loss of consortium, and other psychological trauma.

Evidence of tangible damages includes:

  • Hospital and doctors' bills
  • Chiropractic and physical therapy bills
  • Out-of-pocket expenses (e.g. medications, bandages, etc.)
  • Lost wages verification
  • Estimates for damaged property

Evidence of intangible damages includes:

  • Psychological and psychiatric narratives
  • Reports from mental health counselors
  • Personal testimony from friends, family, and colleagues
  • Any other evidence of emotional distress or mental anguish

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