Elements of a Negligence Case: The 5 Proofs Explained Simply

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.

  • Duty
  • Breach of Duty
  • Cause in Fact
  • Proximate Cause
  • Damages

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 that 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.

guilt of negligence

Examples of Specific Duties Mandated By Law

The first element in a negligence claim is duty. Special relationships between parties can create legal obligations such as that between a doctor and patient or parent and child. Licensed drivers using public roads have various duties placed upon them along with operators of heavy equipment and the like.

Here are some examples to better illustrate:

General Duty: All operators of a motor vehicle have a duty to drive in a safe and reasonable fashion. This includes taking reasonable action to protect the safety of others (other drivers, pedestrians and the public). Failure to do so, when proven by the plaintiff, constitutes a breach of duty and establishes the first element in a negligence case. Drivers are expected to act "as a reasonable man of ordinary prudence" would in the same circumstances. You have a duty to act reasonably similar to how a reasonable man would have in the situation.

Duty to Drive at a Reasonable Speed: A legal duty obligates all motorists to drive at reasonable speeds, taking into consideration all conditions. Weather conditions, traffic, visibility and the condition of the roadway are to be considered when evaluating safe speeds. Following maximum speed limits in spite of safety considerations can be considered a breach of duty.

Duty to Maintain Equipment: Drivers are expected to conduct reasonably expected maintenance of their vehicle and maintain safe operation. It makes good sense considering brake failure, broken blinkers or headlights can lead to unsafe situations for other drivers. Failure to do so can be considered a breach of duty in a courtroom.

Duty to Look Out: Drivers have a duty to be on constant look out when driving a car. Everyone behind a steering wheel has a duty to pay attention when driving and scan their surroundings. You are expected to physically see what happens around you and scan for hazards when driving - if after an accident you say you didn't see it coming, this can be considered a breach of duty.

Duty to Maintain Control of the Vehicle: Every driver has a duty to maintain control of the vehicle they are operating at all times. Drivers are obligated to be able to reasonably stop, adjust and adapt to the conditions on the road without being out of control. Being rear ended by another driver usually constitutes a breach of duty on behalf of the driver who hit you if they were too close and driving too fast to stop safely before colliding.

Duty to Avoid: All drivers have a duty of avoidance, meaning they have a legal obligation to do what can be done to avoid contact with other vehicles and pedestrian accidents. In the event of a collision, drivers are still expected to try and avoid the crash. State laws vary on the amount of avoidance action required of motorists in their jurisdiction. The duty is to have tried to avoid the accident by means of taking some action: honking your horn, slamming on the brakes, swerving in avoidance. It is the attempt that fulfills the driver's duty in most cases. Doing nothing can put you to a degree of fault - important in some states which recognize comparative fault schemes.

Duties to Follow the Rules of the Road: Every state has traffic laws which all drivers have a duty to obey. The rules of the road must be followed by local motorists and visiting drivers alike. The state's codified traffic rules must be understood and followed - there is no "I wasn't aware of the existence of that rule" exception. Drivers who make a mistake or willfully fail to follow the motor vehicle codes may be considered in breach of duty.

Duties under State Law: State statutes can define further duties and expand the scope of existing duties. For example, some states have set a greater legal obligation upon motorists to render assistance than other states have decided to codify. Additionally, state laws are a living and breathing thing and subject to change as new provisions are added, expanded or amended.

Skillful car accident attorneys know insurance adjusters are notorious for asking seemingly innocent questions about an accident in an attempt to establish a breach of duty - with the ultimate goal of establishing a percentage of fault and ultimately contributory negligence to reduce liability.

hit car damage

Negligence Per Se: Statutory Violations

A statutory violation results in an act being considered negligent and is known as "Negligence per se".

In simpler language, it means a regulation violation or failure to follow a traffic law is under a presumption of negligence. Reserved for statute violations the doctrine brings with it the presumption of a negligent act in itself and establishes legal negligence unless proven otherwise.

An injured plaintiff must still be able to prove negligence per se and demonstrate to the court the defendant violated a statute which was implemented to protect people from some harm, that the plaintiff was among that group the rule was meant to protect and the injuries sustained were what the regulation was designed to protect against.

A simplified example: A driver in a car accident who was hit by another party who was speeding recklessly at more than the maximum speed limit. In breaking the speed limit, the driver violated the traffic laws regulating speed. An argument could be made in court that the speeding driver was negligent and therefor liable because the speed limits were put in place to prevent accidents of this type, the violation caused the collision and regulation was designed to protect drivers from the very injuries sustained by the plaintiff.

A negligence per se claim can be based on either a civil or criminal statute but does not restrict the court to sentencing guidelines of the violated law.

The court is free to apportion damages based on the guidelines of a civil trial with the lower burden of proof.

Continue reading to learn more about how accountability is shared amongst involved parties in schemes recognized in some states.

vehicle collision

The Basics of Negligence Actions

So why all the fuss about proving negligence?

Establishing liability is at the heart of civil lawsuits. When a person suffers some harm in the form of financial loss or non-economic injuries and it was the result of another party's careless action - the legal claim process provides the victim a means of seeking damages. Proving negligence when suing for compensation is a doctrine used to determine fault. It's not uncommon for the parties involved to dispute the events, the contributory causes, and the intent of actions which led to the injury causing event.

A personal injury claim is generally based upon a civil complaint against a person or company alleging negligent actions taken by the defendant having caused in some shape or form the injuries suffered by the plaintiff. Depending on how strong a case of negligence can inform decisions made by the attorneys throughout the process.

The issue of negligence is a factor during informal settlement talks. Establishing negligence is at the heart of a court dispute as the attorneys fight over if and what degree parties are liable and establishing how negligent and act was can inform jury awards and trial verdicts.

In its simplest form, the civil legal process amounts to: Injured party seeks restitution. The degree of culpability of involved parties must be established. Proving negligence establishes fault which opens opportunities for legal compensation.

The previous is an over simplification of a very complex process - and is no substitute for getting help from a qualified personal injury attorney who can review the specifics of your claim and help explain how the specific negligence laws may apply.

vehicle collision

How Proof in A Negligence Case Works

We've used car accidents as an example when discussing the five elements above and discussed how statutory violations can lead to a negligence per se claim. Here we will review which ways to prove negligence the courts recognize and in what circumstances.

The basic way to establish proof of negligence is by providing evidence in support of the claim. Here is how evidence works in a negligence case:

Direct Evidence: First hand personal accounts of the events in question from witness testimony, video, photo or document pertaining to the event in question.

Circumstantial Evidence: Inference based evidence derived from third party testimony or opinion that pertains to the event in question.

The two types of evidence are used to establish proof in a negligence case. Special rules exist defining how negligence is proven depending on the circumstances of the case. A negligence per se claim would require evidence proving the statutory violation to establish the presumption of negligence. Additionally, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur allows for the inference of negligence even without proof of misconduct in cases where the plaintiff can prove the injury causing event does not happen in the absence of negligence and the defendant had exclusive control of the cause.

Different circumstances can shift the burden of proof, state laws can vary the process and more a more detailed discussion is beyond the scope of this basic discussion of how it works. For example, slip and fall negligence claims can have different requirements for proof than car accidents and other personal injury cases.

Generally, in order to win a negligence case, the claim will need to meet the five proofs detailed above. To review the basic steps in a negligence claim are:

Step #1: Duty - It must be established that the defendant owed a duty of care - that a duty exists.

Step #2: Breach - It must be established that the defendant was in breach of duty - that failed to perform the duty in question.

Step #3: Causation - It must be established that actions of the defendant or failure to act caused the injuries in question.

Step #4: Proximate Cause - It must be established that the defendant's action was the most direct cause of the injuries sustained in situations with multiple contributing factors.

Step #5: Damages - It must be established the plaintiff was injured (non-economic injuries or economic harm) as a result of the defendant's action.

For a more in depth look at how fault is determined check out our Complete Guide To Legal Fault in an Accident.

State Laws & Resources

Important Online Resources

Here are additional resources for reviewing everything from traffic statutes, state courts, and the tort claim process.

  • Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)
  • Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI)
  • Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA)
  • State Laws & Regulations Affecting Highway-Rail Crossings: Federal Railroad Administration (DOT)
  • U.S. Code Civil Remedy For Personal Injuries (GPO)
  • Tort Litigation: U.S. Attorneys Manual (DOJ)

State by State Court & Law Offices: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida (Torts), Florida (Negligence), Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan,, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming

State laws are always subject to change.


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