What is Negligence?

August 6, 2014

Negligence is a very important part of tort law in the United States. The concept plays a role in most of the civil lawsuits you see and hear about. For example, if a car runs a stop sign and causes an accident, it was probably because the driver was acting negligently. Similarly, a medical malpractice claim would include negligence if a doctor operates on the wrong patient or wrong body part. In order to more fully understand negligence and the role it plays in our justice system, some of the most important concepts in negligence are described below.

Defining Negligence

In essence, negligence is the legal word for carelessness that has caused harm. If you fail to act with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised in the same situation, caused harm because of that failure, and the harm was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the your action, you have acted negligently. Negligence can both be an action and an omission where there is a duty to act.

Actual Cause and Proximate Cause

In order for a judge to find that a defendant acted negligently, the defendant’s act must be an actual cause and a proximate cause of the harm that resulted from the action.

Actual cause can be determined by the ‘but for’ test: The harm would not have occurred ‘but for’ the defendants act.

The judge must also find that the act was a proximate cause of the harm. In other words, is the plaintiff’s injury a reasonably foreseeable result of the defendant’s breach of duty? Is the plaintiff a reasonably foreseeable victim?

These questions were used to conceptualize proximate cause in a famous case from 1928 called Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. In that case, two railroad employees were helping a man board a moving train. One man was pulling him from inside the train car, and another was pushing him into the car from the platform. These acts caused the man to drop his luggage, which contained a bundle of fireworks wrapped in newspaper. The fireworks exploded when they hit the rails, causing a scale to fall on the other side of the track, which injured Mrs. Helen Palsgraf. Palsgraf sued the railroad company for negligence, but the Supreme Court found that there was no proximate cause between the acts of the railroad employees and her injury. In other words, it was not foreseeable, that pushing a man onto a train would cause a scale to drop at the other end of the platform.

Comparative Negligence

Often both the defendant and the plaintiff that was injured acted negligently and contributed to the harm that was caused. If the plaintiff contributed to his or her own injuries, most states apply a comparative negligence rule. Comparative negligence assigns damages by the percentage that each party is culpable, and then each party pays the other’s damages accordingly. California follows a pure comparative negligence model. This means a claimant will receive the exact amount of damages he or she deserves, minus the percentage he or she contributed to the harm caused. Hence, if you are at fault 20% and the defendant is at fault 80%, you will recover 80% of your damages.