Negligence is a legal term for certain kinds of carelessness, inattention or neglect, especially resulting in harm to another person. It is an ingredient of many torts under civil law. A lawsuit grounded in a claim of negligence might be brought, for example, by someone injured in an auto accident against another driver who he felt caused the acciden by being reckless or irresponsible.
Under law, negligence is usually defined in the context of jury instructions wherein a judge, in language he finds fitting, tells the jury that a party is to be considered negligent if he or she failed to exercise the level of care that a reasonable person, possessed of the same knowledge, would have exercised under the same circumstances. In most jurisdictions, it is necessary to show first that a person had a duty to exercise care in a given situation, and that he breached that duty. In order to prove negligence, it is not necessary to prove harm, but in order for a cause of action to rest in tort, harm must be proven. Hence, it would be meaningless to sue someone for negligence if no harm resulted. Conversely, it is not enough that a harm was done. In order for the harm to be compensible in a negligence lawsuit, the defendant must be shown to have been negligent, and it must be demonstrated that his negligence was the proximate cause of the harm felt by the plaintiff.
The law holds that any reasonable person would, if able, follow the law. Consequently, as a matter of law, a person may be declared by a court liable as a matter of law negligence per se if it is proven that he or she broke the law, e.g. by violating a statute. For example, someone injuring another in an auto accident may be found negligent per se in a civil suit arising from the accident if he was convicted of driving while intoxicated in criminal court.
It is often observed by practitioners in tort law that a prospective plaintiff who has a poor understanding of the foregoing principles will desire to see a significant monetary penalty applied as a result of the outrageousness of a defendant's act. He may feel that he "deserves" an award all out of proportion to his actual misfortune, because of the severe nature of the defendant's carelessness. This is a mistaken view of the authority of the law. Damages are awarded in proportion to the scope of the harm done, not the severety of the negligence. "But he was so careless, he could have killed me!" falls on deaf ears in court. Still, some negligent acts are recognized as a matter of law to be so egregious as to merit financial penalty over and above actual damages, in order to reform the conduct of a malicious or callously indifferent defendant, and, by example, others similarly disposed. This is the purpose of punitive damages. Such acts are rare indeed, well defined in the law of applicable jurisdictions, and limited to the exact conditions of the law under which they may be awarded. Only when the severity of negligence rises to an extreme level (and then, only when harm results therefrom) might it meet the standards required under laws providing for punitive damages.
Components of a negligence lawsuit:
A negligence lawsuit involves many components which need to be considered before the success of the case can be determined. Proving negligence is far more complicated than it may seem.
When considering a negligence lawsuit there are four primary elements which need to be viewed and covered thoroughly: duty, breach of duty, causation and damages.
The duty element is the legal requirement that the person being sued for negligence must adhere to a standard of conduct in protecting others from unreasonable risk of harm. It really is the legal obligation we have in our relationships with others. Different duties apply to different people. A parent has a duty to care for her children. A landlord has a duty to her tenants and so on. Each duty is applicable to the pertinent responsibility at hand.
Breaching that duty is the second element to a negligence lawsuit. The question to be asked is, would a reasonable person in a similar situation have done the same thing as the person being sued? To come to that conclusion both an objective and subjective standards need to be considered.
The objective standard of breach of duty only considers a hypothetical person and what her or his reasonable behavior might be. The subjective standard considers the actual person being sued and if she or he thinks they acted reasonably in the matter at hand.
Professionals are held to a higher standard of care than the average person in society. These people take oaths in their professions and need to maintain that in their lives.
The causation of negligence is the third critical element of the lawsuit. Both actual cause and proximate cause are considered. Actual cause asks the question of whether the person being sued, the defendant, was the actual cause of injuries sustained by the person initiating the lawsuit, the plaintiff. Proximate cause looks at the issue of foreseeability. When considering the event that has happened, it is asked whether or not the injuries sustained were foreseeable or too remotely connected to the incident to even consider.
The final element of a negligence lawsuit is the damages being sought. Damages are what the plaintiff is seeking in recovering for the incident resulting from the negligent act. Compensatory damages are designed to compensate the plaintiff for actual costs incurred. Of those, there are general and special damages. General damages are those like monetary compensation for the injury sustained. Special damages involve extra items such as material possessions lost from the negligent act. Nominal damages can also be awarded when negligence can be proven but not an actual loss as a result of it. And finally, punitive damages are those with the intent to punish the defendant. The hope is that awarding punitive damages will deter similar actions in the future.
When the negligence lawsuit goes to trial, the judge will determine what the defendant's duty was to the plaintiff. If it is questionable what a reasonable person would do, a jury will consider the facts and render a decision.