How to Prove Negligence in a Personal Injury Case: Evidence of Fault

Proving the at-fault party’s negligence is critical to a successful personal injury claim. See the types of evidence you can use to build your case.

People are injured every day because of someone else’s negligence. Injury claims are filed with insurance companies after car accidents, slip and falls, dog attacks, workplace incidents, and more.

If you’ve suffered an injury caused by someone else, you have the right to seek compensation for your financial losses and pain and suffering. Filing an insurance claim is only the beginning.

You won’t be able to settle an injury claim or win a lawsuit unless you can show the at-fault party negligently caused your injuries. In most cases, their negligence results in a legal obligation to pay for your damages.

Here we unpack the kinds of evidence you need to support the four elements of negligence in your personal injury case.

Definition of Negligence for Injury Claims

Negligence is conduct that falls short of what a reasonable person would do to protect another person from a foreseeable risk of harm. In plain language, a person is negligent when they do something wrong, or fail to do what any reasonable person would do in the same circumstances to prevent harm to others.

In personal injury cases, a party is liable for the victim’s damages if the party’s negligence caused the victim’s injuries.

Key Elements of Negligence

There are four important elements of negligence you’ll need for a successful injury claim. You must have all four elements to get anywhere with the insurance adjuster. Think of the elements of negligence like the four wheels on a grocery cart. You won’t make it to check out if one of the wheels is missing.

The 4 key elements of negligence are:

  1. Duty of Care: The at-fault person or business had a legal duty of care to avoid causing harm to others. A store owner has a duty to clear ice from the store’s sidewalk.
  2. Breach of Duty: The at-fault person breached their duty of reasonable care by doing something wrong or failing to do what any prudent person would do in similar circumstances. A driver breaches their duty to drive safely by driving while intoxicated.
  3. Causation: The at-fault person’s breach of their duty of care is the direct cause of your injuries. A distracted driver who rear-ends your car is the direct cause of your neck injury.
  4. Damages: You have verifiable injuries, supported by medical bills, medical records, and evidence of emotional distress.

Because you bear the burden of proof, the other party technically doesn’t have to prove anything. It’s up to you or your attorney to show all four elements of negligence to settle your claim or win your personal injury lawsuit.

Proving the At-Fault Party’s Duty of Care

It’s easy to say any given person has a duty to avoid harming another person, but in reality, it comes down to the circumstances in each particular case.

There is no chart or rule you can use to prove a person’s conduct was reasonable under specific circumstances. If your case were to end up in court, the jury would be asked to look at the “totality of the circumstances” to determine whether the defendant’s actions were negligent.

What might be reasonable conduct for one person may not be reasonable for another person.

It might be reasonable for a homeowner to wait until a snowstorm is over before shoveling the sidewalk. However, a hotel owner might be reasonably expected to keep the front walk shoveled throughout the same snowstorm, as stranded travelers continue to arrive. The homeowner and hotel owner have a different duty of care.

Evidence used to prove a party’s duty of care might include:

  • Traffic laws in your state for motor vehicle accidents
  • City snow removal ordinances
  • State building codes in premises liability claims
  • Municipal dog laws for dog bite cases
  • AMA standard of care guidelines in medical malpractice cases

Proving a Breached Duty of Care

After establishing the other party owed you a duty of care, you must prove they breached that duty. You might also have to prove that you didn’t do anything wrong. Adjusters often use contributory or comparative negligence as an excuse to deny or diminish your claim.

Breach of duty evidence could come from many sources, including:

  • Traffic citations issued to the other driver
  • Subject matter expert opinions
  • Witness testimony
  • Cell phone records
  • Manufacturing records in product liability cases

Example: Proving Negligence for Rear-End Collision

Sally was heading to work on the interstate on a very foggy morning. She turned on her car’s fog lights and headlights. The fog was so heavy, Sally and many other motorists slowed their speed to less than 40 miles per hour because of poor visibility.

As Sally began to exit the interstate, she suddenly ran into the back of Sam’s gray pickup truck. At the time of impact, Sam did not have any of his truck lights turned on. Sally suffered a broken nose from the airbag deployment, a mild concussion, and a whiplash neck injury.

Sam and his insurance company blamed Sally for the accident. Sally and her personal injury lawyer filed a lawsuit against Sam when his insurance company rejected Sally’s demand for injury compensation.

In most circumstances, a driver who runs into the rear of another vehicle is considered negligent for following too closely. However, Sally’s lawyer used witness testimony and records of fog visibility warnings issued the morning of the crash to show the jury that:

  1. Sally took reasonable precautions to avoid an accident under foggy conditions by reducing her speed and using her car lights.
  2. Sam was driving his truck without any headlights or fog lights turned on.
  3. Sam knew or should have known that other drivers would not be able to see his gray truck in dense fog.

The jury found that Sally did not act negligently. The jury determined that Sam had a duty of care to operate his vehicle safely in challenging weather conditions. Because he failed to do what an average person would do under the circumstances – turn on his lights – Sam breached his duty of care and was liable for the accident.

Proving the Direct Cause of Your Injuries

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 cause of your injuries.

Proving a person’s conduct was negligent, by itself, is not enough to win a personal injury case. You must also prove that their error or failure to act responsibly directly caused your injuries.

You need to be able to say, but for the other person’s negligence, you would not have been injured. For example, if you suffered a spinal cord injury in a side-impact collision, you could say that, but for the other driver running a red light, you would not be injured.

Evidence linking your injuries to the incident will primarily come from records of medical treatment at the scene, and medical records for treatment sought shortly after you were injured.

Never refuse treatment at the scene or delay medical attention after an accident.

The injured party in a personal injury claim or lawsuit is obligated to mitigate their damages. This means doing what you can to lessen the impact of your injuries and expenses.

Tell each of your medical care providers exactly when, where, and how you were injured. Their notes will directly link your injuries to the accident. The resulting records are important evidence of causation.

Proving Your Personal Injury 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, you will seek compensation for economic and non-economic damages. Economic damages, also called special damages, include all the money spent treating your injuries, and the value of your damaged property. Non-economic damages, also called general damages, include all your emotional distress, mental anguish, and loss of enjoyment of life.

Evidence of economic damages includes:

  • Treatment bills for your physical injuries
  • Receipts for out-of-pocket medical expenses
  • Receipts for replacement services like lawn mowing or pet walking
  • Lost wages verification
  • Estimates for damaged property

Evidence of intangible damages includes:

  • Reports from mental-health care providers
  • Your diary notes about pain levels, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and other symptoms
  • Personal testimony from friends, family, and colleagues
  • Any other evidence of emotional distress or mental anguish

Attorneys are Experts at Proving Negligence

When liability is clear, you might decide to handle a minor injury claim on your own. If you aren’t looking to collect much more than the cost of your reasonable medical expenses, the insurance company will pay to quickly resolve your claim.

Severe injury claims always need a personal injury attorney to get anywhere near a fair amount of compensation. Insurance companies train their adjusters to avoid paying high-dollar claims. The adjuster will refuse to accept liability for their insured without incontrovertible proof of negligence.

Remember, it’s up to you to prove the insured was negligent. This requires hard evidence. Your opinion of fault won’t sway the insurance adjuster, and convincing evidence can be hard to get.

That’s where a skilled injury attorney can help your claim.

Your attorney not only knows the tort laws applicable to your case, they can use subpoenas and other litigation tools to obtain critical evidence you would never have access to on your own.

It doesn’t matter if you were in a car accident, slipped and fell, or were injured some other way.

Depending on the circumstances of your injuries, your attorney can get:

  • The other driver’s cell phone records
  • The other driver’s medical records showing drug and alcohol levels
  • The at-fault party’s insurance limits
  • Driving records of at-fault drivers
  • Criminal records of potential witnesses
  • Surveillance camera footage from the business where you were hurt, or from cameras near where you were injured
  • Deposition testimony of business employees
  • Safety inspection records for the location where you were injured

Proving a negligence claim when you or a loved one are injured is just one reason to hire an attorney. Most personal injury attorneys offer a free consultation. There’s no cost to find out what an experienced 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 >>