What Is Negligence in a Legal Case?

by Team eLocal
Injured man in pain discussing a lawsuit with his attorney.

If you forgot to water your houseplant, or if you haven’t dusted on top of the cabinets in a while, you’re what most of us would call “negligent.” However, neglecting a few household chores isn’t likely to land you in legal trouble.

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Understanding what negligence is in the legal sense can help you whether you're the one filing the claim or defending yourself.

What Is Negligence?

It's considered legally negligent when someone doesn't exercise the care toward another individual that a reasonable person would in a similar situation, either due to an action or the lack of taking certain actions. There are typically four parts that go into proving negligence in a legal case, including:

  • Duty of care: The person at fault had a duty to care for the person who was injured.
  • Breach: That person did something, either by acting or failing to act, to break that duty.
  • Causation: Those actions or lack of action resulted in an injury to the person filing the case.
  • Damages: The plaintiff actually experienced some type of injury or damage.

The definition of duty of care can be somewhat broad. Some situations are more obvious than others. For example, a doctor clearly owes their patients reasonable care. In a less obvious example, every driver owes others on the road the duty of care to not do things such as driving drunk or texting while driving.

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What Are Some Examples of Negligence?

Looking at a few examples can help you better understand the definition of negligence:

  • A driver who texts and drives, resulting in hitting a pedestrian
  • A store that leaves a wet spot on the floor for an extended period, resulting in someone slipping and falling
  • You’re the owner of a dog that bites or attacks another person
  • A pedestrian trips on an uneven or damaged sidewalk that the homeowner failed to fix

Medical negligence can include operating on the wrong body part, leaving an instrument in the patient or misdiagnosing a condition that a doctor with the same training should have properly diagnosed.

What Are the Different Types of Negligence?

Gross Negligence

This serious type of negligence means the defendant acted recklessly or with complete disregard for safety in a way that a reasonable person wouldn't.

Contributory Negligence

In contributory negligence, the defendant is only partially responsible. The plaintiff also shares some of the blame. This typically means the plaintiff won't receive compensation for the damage or injury.

Comparative Negligence

Comparative negligence is similar, but it still allows the plaintiff to receive some compensation. Typically, the court decides what percentage of fault each party shares. The defendant receives a smaller settlement based on how much fault they had. For example, if the court decides they hold 20% of the fault, the amount they receive is reduced by 20%. Not all states use this method, and some states use a combination of contributory and comparative negligence.

Vicarious Negligence

In this situation, the defendant didn't directly cause the injury, but they're indirectly responsible. For example, if your minor child hurts someone or your dog bites a person, you can be held responsible.

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