The 4 Elements of Negligence You Need for a Strong Personal Injury Case

A strong personal injury case starts with the four elements of negligence. Here’s what you need to prove the other party’s fault.

When someone else caused your injury, you expect to be compensated. But before you see a dime from the insurance company, you must prove the other party’s negligence.

Negligence, an important part of tort law, is defined as conduct that falls short of reasonable standards for protecting a person from a foreseeable risk of harm. In other words, people are supposed to be careful not to hurt someone else.

Like the four corners of a building, there are four critical elements of negligence needed for a successful injury claim. The elements of a negligence claim are duty, breach of duty, causation, and verifiable damages.

Element 1: You Were Owed a Duty of Care

The first element of negligence is establishing the duty owed by one person to another.

In most cases, individuals, businesses, and other “entities” like property owners have a duty of care to avoid causing harm to others.

Your claim documents must show why the at-fault person had a responsibility to avoid causing you harm.

Examples of Duty of Care:

  • Drivers have a duty to their passengers and other drivers to operate their vehicles carefully.
  • Companies have a duty to their customers to make sure their products are safe.
  • Store owners have a duty to their customers to keep their floors clear of slippery substances and other hazards.
  • Doctors have a duty to give their patients appropriate medical care.

The Duty of Care May Vary

Every injured person is unique, and the circumstances of each case are different. The duty of one party is not the same as another.

For example, at a large metropolitan trauma center, appropriate medical care for a car accident victim might include emergency brain surgery.

A small rural hospital doesn’t have the staffing or equipment to perform brain surgery, so a crash victim taken there must be transferred to a larger facility. The small hospital does not have a legal duty to deliver the same standard of care as a big trauma center.

Element 2: The Duty of Care was Breached

The second element of negligence proves how the at-fault person breached their duty of care. A breach is like a broken promise.

A party breaches their duty of care by doing something wrong, or failing to do what a reasonable person would do under similar circumstances.

Examples of Breach of Duty:

  • A driver is texting while driving and runs a red light.
  • A manufacturer produces poorly designed bookcases that tip over.
  • Grocery store employees fail to clean up spilled detergent in the laundry products aisle.
  • A doctor prescribes the wrong medication to a fragile patient.

Reasonableness Standards

Proving breach of duty often involves proving the at-fault party knew, or should have known of the hazard and failed to take corrective action.

If another shopper spills liquid detergent in a grocery store and you slip and fall on the spill five minutes later, the grocer will argue they could not reasonably be expected to mop up every spill the moment it happens.

However, if the store’s surveillance camera video shows that a store clerk saw the spill, walked around it, and the spill was still there twenty minutes later when you fell, the store is clearly negligent. A prudent person would have cleaned the floor or placed a wet floor sign around the hazard as soon as they saw the spill.

Element 3: The Breach of Duty Caused Your Injuries

The third element is when the breach of duty results in another person’s injuries. The breach of duty must be the direct cause of your damages.

The insurance company will need proof that their insured caused your injuries by doing something wrong or failing to do the right thing.

Examples of Direct Injuries:

  • A car accident victim suffered a spinal cord injury after getting T-boned by a texting driver.
  • A toddler was fatally injured when a poorly designed bookcase tipped over and crushed the child.
  • A woman suffered a broken hip after a slip and fall on spilled soap at the grocery store.
  • A patient went into a diabetic coma because of a prescription error.

Linking Your Injuries to the Incident

Report accidents and injuries as soon as they occur. If you slip and fall, don’t dust yourself off and leave a business without filing an incident report. After a motor vehicle accident, don’t tell the at-fault driver you’re fine and neglect to get their contact and insurance information.

Seek immediate medical attention for your injuries after any kind of incident. Be sure to tell your medical provider all your symptoms and how you were hurt. You want the doctor’s notes to directly link the incident to your injuries.

Delaying medical attention, or refusing medical care at the scene, gives the at-fault party’s insurance company an excuse to deny your personal injury claim.

If your case ends up in court without proof of causation, their attorney will dispute your legal claim by arguing argue that the defendant’s breach did not cause your injuries.

Element 4: You Suffered Verifiable Damages

After you’ve convinced the insurance company that their insured caused your injuries, you’ll need evidence to prove the nature and extent of your damages. Most legal claims won’t get far unless you sustained a physical injury from the incident.

There are two categories of injury damages you can include in a claim:

  • Special damages, also called economic damages, are the amounts of money you lost and will continue to lose because of the at-fault party’s negligence. “Specials” include things like medical bills, out-of-pocket medical expenses, and lost wages.
  • General damages, also called non-economic damages, include pain and emotional trauma. There are no objective measurements for general damages, but there are ways to prove your pain and suffering.

The first three elements of negligence establish the other party’s fault. The fourth element helps prove what your injury claim is worth by nailing down how badly you were injured, including pain, suffering, and emotional distress.

Examples of Damage Verification:

  • Medical records and bills
  • Physical therapy and chiropractic records and bills
  • Receipts for out-of-pocket medical expenses, like medications and bandages
  • Receipts for replacement services like childcare, housekeeping, and lawn mowing
  • Photographs and video of the injuries
  • Written statements by witnesses and caregivers
  • Replacement costs for personal property damage, like broken glasses or torn clothing

Combining the Four Elements in a Strong Case

Once you understand the elements of negligence, you can begin matching them to the facts of your case. Your goal is to convince the claims adjuster their insured was negligent, and that your claim value is in line with your settlement demand.

When you keep in mind the elements of negligence, you can organize the information that supports your claim in a way that makes it easier for the claims adjuster to approve your demand for compensation.

Example: Elements of Negligence in an Injury Claim  

On a clear evening, John is driving home from work on Burke Street at the posted speed limit. As he approaches the intersection of Burke and Queen Streets, he has the green light and proceeds through the intersection.

Martha was also heading home from work, but she was running late. As she traveled along Queen Street, she was texting her husband to pick up their kids from daycare.

Distracted, Marsha didn’t see the red light as she went through the intersection with Burke Street. Marsha slammed into the side of John’s car, seriously injuring both drivers and totaling their cars.

John suffered several broken bones and a spinal cord injury that required him to spend months in a painful “halo” brace that was affixed to his skull.

Through his attorney, John made a demand to Marsha’s insurance company for $200,000.

The four elements of negligence in John’s claim are:

  1. Marsha had a clear duty to obey traffic signals and avoid distractions while driving.
  2. Marsha breached her duty by texting while driving and running a red light.
  3. Marsha’s breach of duty to drive safely was the direct and actual cause of John’s injuries. If not for Marsha’s negligent acts, John would not have been injured.
  4. Marsha’s negligence resulted in John’s verifiable damages.

Now that you understand the four elements of negligence, you’re closer to successfully negotiating your injury claim.

If you’ve fully recovered from relatively mild injuries, you might decide to handle your injury claim on your own. Of course, you can seek legal advice as part of your decision-making process.

If you have severe injuries or a complicated negligence case, you need an experienced personal injury attorney to help build your case. Complicated injury claims might involve medical malpractice, defective products, or allegations of contributory negligence.

Most personal injury lawyers offer a free consultation to injury victims. There’s no obligation, and it costs nothing to find out what a good attorney can do for you.

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>