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Elements of Negligence

What are the core elements of negligence? Here’s what you need to know: For negligence to be included in a personal injury claim, a plaintiff will need to show that all four elements of negligence apply to the claim.

What Elements Are Required to Prove Negligence?

In a negligence case, the plaintiff is the person who is injured or damaged, and the defendant is the negligent person. If a plaintiff wants to prove negligence, they will need to prove all four of the following points:

  1. Duty of Care: The plaintiff was owed a duty of care by the defendant.
  2. Breach of Duty: The defendant breached their duty of care to the plaintiff.
  3. Causation: The actions of the defendant proximately caused injuries or damages.
  4. Damages: The plaintiff suffered injuries or damages.

These elements are vital to secure compensation—you will need every single one to establish negligence.

Let’s break down the four elements of negligence and what it takes to prove each one.

1. Duty of Care

Did the defendant owe the plaintiff a legal duty of care?

A few things need to happen here for duty of care to be established. The law must have recognized a relationship between the defendant and the plaintiff, and because of this relationship, one party is obligated to exercise a reasonable level of care.

Examples of Duty of Care:

  • Every driver is expected to maintain their vehicle in a safe condition and operate their vehicle safely. In New York, drivers must drive in accordance with all traffic laws, including the Vehicle and Traffic Law, commonly referred to as the “VTL.” For example, in a rear-end motor vehicle accident, New York VTL§ 1129 will apply. VTL § 1129 prohibits vehicles from following another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent.
  • Business owners have a duty to take reasonable care to ensure their premises are safe for their customers and employees. That means they need to regularly check the property to make sure it is safe for daily use. If it is not, hazardous conditions must be fixed within a reasonable period, relative to the severity of the issue. A common example is when water is left on a store floor. If the water was left on the floor long enough—a few hours, for example—then a reasonable and prudent store owner regularly inspecting their property for hazardous conditions should have observed the water. The reasonable and prudent owner should have cleaned up or dried the floor to prevent the hazardous condition from causing injury or damage to a customer.

2. Breach of Duty

The question to ask here is: Did the defendant neglect to do something to prevent an accident that an average person would do if they were in this same situation?

If the defendant did not take a course of action that another person would have to keep an accident from happening, this can constitute a breach of duty. We all take on a responsibility when we do things like operate vehicles or invite people into our homes.

Examples of Breach of Duty:

  • A person texts while driving
  • An owner walks an aggressive dog and it bites a nearby child
  • A car rear-ends a stopped vehicle and did not allow enough stopping distance when approaching the stopped car.
  • Guests are invited into a home that is in disrepair and a person falls through a hole in the floor
  • A person leaves a sidewalk door leading down to a basement open without warning pedestrians walking near the basement door that the door is open.

3. Causation

The question to ask here is: Were the plaintiff’s injuries caused by the defendant’s breach of duty?

The injured plaintiff will need to prove that their injuries and damages were caused by a breach of duty on the part of the defendant. There are a couple of ways in which that cause is shown.

Cause in Fact
Cause in fact means the plaintiff’s injuries are a direct result of the defendant’s actions. If the defendant had not done what she did, the plaintiff would not have been injured. It helps to ask yourself: If the defendant’s actions had never occurred, would the plaintiff still have been injured or damaged?

The plaintiff’s injuries must have been caused solely by the defendant’s actions.

Examples of Cause in Fact:

  • A 15-year-old girl crossed the street inside a crosswalk and was struck by a driver who did not see her cross. The girl’s knee was injured and needs two surgeries to repair it. The girl developed post-traumatic arthritis in her knee at 19 years old. The knee injuries, surgeries, and arthritis are reasonably related to the breach of duty because if the driver had seen the girl, which is something he should have done, the girl would not have been hit. Most importantly, the girl would not have suffered the injuries that she did.
  • A daycare owner was eating soup near a six-month-old child who could walk or crawl. The child is crying. The daycare owner picked up the baby and brought them near the soup so she could continue eating. The soup spilled on the child and the child was severely burned. The burns are reasonably related to the breach of duty of care because if the owner had not brought the immobile child near the soup, the child would not have been burned and suffered the injury.

Often, proving causation is challenging because a plaintiff may have a prior injury or prior condition that makes it difficult to determine if new injuries, or exacerbated injuries, were caused by the defendant’s negligent actions. For example, the 15-year-old girl crossing the street may never have had any prior knee injuries because she is young and healthy. However, if a 50-year-old bodybuilder with a history of disc herniations in his neck is rear-ended by a negligent driver and requires a cervical spine fusion, it may be more difficult to prove causation.

The defendant could argue that the need for cervical spine surgery was because of prior injuries or was inevitable because of the plaintiff’s past medical history. Often, doctors and experts will be required to explain to a jury why the plaintiff’s injuries were caused or exacerbated by the rear-end car accident.

Proximate Cause

Also known as legal cause, proximate cause points to an event related to an injury that a judge or jury feels to be the cause of the plaintiff’s injury. In other words, did something happen that triggered a series of events that lead to the defendant’s injuries? This applies to any action that produced a foreseeable consequence, or consequences, without intervention from someone else.

  • Proximate Cause Example – A driver negligently crashes a car into a tree and a tree limb falls on a pedestrian and injures the pedestrian. The defendant driver did not hit the pedestrian directly. But the driver hit the tree, which caused the limb to fall and caused the plaintiff to suffer injuries and damages.

Another item to consider is whether the defendant could have foreseen that his or her actions might cause an injury. Foreseeability means that the injuries received by the plaintiff were a foreseeable cause of the defendant’s breach of the duty of care. It requires an average person to have anticipated that the danger created by the negligent act would have caused the injuries the plaintiff suffered.

4. Damages

This last element of negligence establishes monetary compensation to offer relief for a plaintiff who has experienced injuries and damages.

Although it may sound insensitive, there is no other way to legally compensate an individual for injuries besides giving them money. A monetary award will help an injured plaintiff support their family, live, eat, and receive medical care. Damages can include medical care, lost wages, and pain and suffering, among other things.

  • Damages Example: A manager of a hotel, who must lift heavy bags and walk throughout the hotel during her eight-hour shift, is injured in a car accident in which she was not at fault. The manager was severely injured in the collision and could no longer lift heavy bags or walk the long hallways in the hotel. As a result of the crash, the manager can no longer work and will require spinal surgery in the future. Monetary compensation will help the plaintiff with her injury, her lost wages, medical expenses, and future surgery.

Personal Injury Attorneys Ready to Help Victims of Negligence

The attorneys at Block O’Toole & Murphy, LLP are extremely skilled at handling, settling, and trying negligence cases. Prior case results include a $110,174,972 verdict for a cyclist struck by a falling object, a $32,756,156 verdict for a pedestrian hit by a car who sustained life-threatening head trauma, and a $13,500,000 settlement for a young woman who was hit by a car while she was walking home.

If you have been injured as a result of another party’s negligence, the personal injury lawyers at Block O’Toole & Murphy are ready to help. Call 212-736-5300 or fill out our online contact form to discuss your case with a qualified attorney today.

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