In common parlance, “negligence” means something like “carelessness.” The legal term means something similar, but it includes nuances that are absent in the colloquial term.
Most personal injury claims are based on negligence, and negligence claims include very specific elements that you must prove to win. The most common negligence claims arise from automobile accidents.
The Legal Definition of Negligence
One way of looking at it is that “duty + breach = negligence.” If you can establish that the defendant owed you a duty of care and that the defendant failed to meet that duty, you have established negligence. For example:
- The defendant ran a stop light.
- The defendant left a loose handrail in their stairwell after inviting you to come downstairs to watch TV together.
- A grocery store failed to mop a wet floor or warn customers of the floor’s slippery condition.
In each of the foregoing instances, the defendant was subject only to a duty of ordinary care, which is the duty of care that is most commonly invoked in negligence cases.
When someone is trained in a skill, holds themselves out to the public as a specialist, and makes their living by practicing that skill, they are held to a higher standard of care than the ordinary level of care described above.
An electrician, for example, must practice their trade at a higher level of care than a layperson trying to repair the electrical wiring in their home. You may need an expert witness to establish the professional standard of care.
Medical negligence is one of the most common forms of professional negligence. Even among physicians, however, standards of care differ. A cardiologist is held to a higher standard than a general practitioner, for example. Failure to meet this elevated standard of care constitutes professional negligence.
Gross negligence is an extreme form of negligence that can carry enhanced liability. Gross negligence occurs when someone knows of the risk that their behavior imposes on others and deliberately ignores that risk. It is the degree of indifference to the safety of others that distinguishes ordinary negligence from gross negligence.
A possible example of the difference is driving 10 miles over the speed limit vs. driving while extremely intoxicated.
Gross Negligence and Punitive Damages
Courts assess punitive damages to punish the defendant for particularly outrageous behavior, not to compensate the plaintiff. Still, punitive damages go to the plaintiff, not the court or the government.
One main purpose of proving gross negligence as opposed to ordinary negligence is that you now have a case for punitive damages. The judge still doesn’t have to grant punitive damages, but they are possible once you establish gross negligence. If you qualify for punitive damages, you can still receive compensatory damages.
Negligence Per Se
Suppose the defendant plowed into your car while playing loud music, with his arm around his girlfriend. Is that negligence? It would be up to a court to decide, and different courts might reach different results. Negligence is often a judgment call, and you might not know how a jury will evaluate the facts of your case.
Negligence per se is a way of establishing negligence when the defendant broke a safety law designed to protect the victim. Running a stop sign, for example, is illegal. No jury would have to decide that question—it is automatically negligence because it is against the law.
As long as the victim was among the class of people the law was designed to protect (motorists, passengers, and pedestrians on public roads), then running a stop sign is negligence.
There is one exception to the negligence per se rule. If the defendant can establish that their actions were reasonable under the circumstances, their actions might not constitute negligence. Suppose, for example, that someone swerved out of their lane and hit your car, thereby injuring you.
If they can prove that they swerved to avoid hitting a small child chasing a basketball, they might escape liability for negligence.
Does Negligence Equal Liability?
The legal term “negligence” is used in different ways. Some people equate negligence with liability for an accident caused by careless behavior. To other people, negligence is simply careless behavior.
Under this view, establishing negligence is not enough to establish liability. You must also prove that the negligence actually caused an accident that resulted in the victim’s injuries.
Either way, careless behavior alone is not enough to establish liability. You must also prove that you suffered a personal injury and that the defendant’s careless behavior is what caused that injury. Furthermore, your injury must have been a foreseeable cause of your injury.
Schedule a Free Consultation With a Personal Injury Lawyer in Las Vegas, NV
Almost any personal injury lawyer will schedule a free initial consultation with you to talk about your claim. You will have the opportunity to tell your story, and the lawyer will probably ask you questions designed to determine whether you have a valid claim.
If you do have a valid claim, the lawyer might offer to represent you on a contingency basis. This means your legal fees equal a certain percentage of the amount of money you win–and you pay nothing if you don’t win.