To arrive at a negligence law definition, we must understand four core negligence elements, which are as follows:
To bring forth a negligence claim as a plaintiff, your case should have all four elements.
Let’s look at each of the negligence elements in greater detail, in the context of automobile accidents.
Duty means that people have a legal obligation to act as a reasonable person would. In other words, individuals are required to take reasonable care when they are out and about. In automobile accident cases, it is considered one’s duty to drive a vehicle safely, as a reasonable person should.
Breach of duty occurs when one is not driving a vehicle safely — whether it’s speeding, following someone too closely from behind, or turning left on a red light. Driving this way is breaching one’s duty to operate reasonably and use reasonable care.
Causation is when one’s breach of duty results in injuries or damages to another person.
Damages may include property damage, bodily damages, and pain and suffering.
All of these elements factor into a negligence law claim.
When a Determination of Negligence Is Unclear
Well what happens when you don’t have such a clear line of argument regarding the breaching party’s behavior? In such situations, it is important to look at two different types of evidence: circumstantial evidence and direct evidence.
I’ll use an example that stuck with me from law school, that I still think about today. (Thank you, Professor Sanders!) To explain the difference between circumstantial evidence and direct evidence in the context of negligence, let’s imagine that you wake up in the morning and everything is wet outside.
Circumstantial evidence suggests that it rained last night. You actually didn’t see the rain fall. You didn’t hear the rain fall. However, because everything is wet outside, you can draw the inference that it rained.
Direct evidence would be you watch it rain and then see everything get wet. This direct knowledge of the event enables you to affirm, “I saw it rain. That’s why everything got wet.”
The reason it’s important to understand the different types of evidence is because you can’t always a draw a direct line to the person that may have caused the harm.
Res Ipsa Loquitur and the Case of the Falling Flowerpot
Let’s imagine you are walking down the street and a flowerpot from an apartment above falls off the ledge and hits you in the head. There’s really no explainable reason why that would have happened.
Let’s look at how negligence elements apply to this example:
- Duty: The person in the apartment who put the flowerpot on the ledge had a duty to operate in a reasonable manner. This does not mean they can’t put a flowerpot out on the ledge.
- Breach: Where did the apartment dweller breach the standard of care? Well, probably in not securing that flowerpot in a way that it couldn’t fall from the ledge.
- Causation: The flowerpot falls off the ledge because it is not secured.
- Damages: The flowerpot lands on your head, causing you bodily injury.
Here, we can talk about the legal theory of res ipsa loquitur, which is Latin for “the thing speaks for itself.” We can use this concept to infer negligence in this case. We have circumstantial evidence to prove that the apartment dweller failed to secure the flowerpot.
A flowerpot is not supposed to fall by itself onto a sidewalk where people could be walking. At the same time, it is foreseeable that people will on the sidewalk below the flowerpot, traveling to and fro.
We can establish that the flowerpot is the reason for causing bodily harm. Ultimately, however, it is the apartment dweller who is responsible for the harm done. He or she did not properly secure that flowerpot and allowing it to cause the damage to a passerby below.
Res ipsa loquitur. The thing speaks for itself.
Negligence Elements in a Retail Setting
I want to use a third example from one of my actual cases to illustrate a negligence law definition in the real world.
I once represented a gentleman who was shopping at a big box retailer. When he reached up to select an item from the shelf, he reached over his head, tipping a box toward him. My client was unaware that debris was on top of that box. As the box tipped, debris cascaded down, into his mouth, causing him to ingest some of that debris.
It turns out that the debris included glass shards. Having swallowed glass, my client was immediately transported to the ER, where his stomach was pumped. Afterward, he was monitored for potential issues for a few days.
We had the task of proving how glass got onto the box and why the big box retailer would be responsible for the glass falling into our client’s mouth.
Here, we once again find the concept of res ipsa loquitur — the thing speaks for itself. That glass should not have been present on the box when our client pulled it from the shelf. The falling debris is what caused the damages.
See Jonathan Negretti’s video podcast episode on the topic of negligence law definition and negligence elements.
As we investigated the scene of where the client was pulling down this box, we found light bulbs above it. Our concept was there was a possibility that light bulbs go out from time to time. As they are changed, bulbs may break. Perhaps an employee was on a scissor jack or a ladder changing lightbulbs, and set them atop the the box, for the purpose of finishing what they were doing. Perhaps the employee intended to come back and clean the mess, but may have forgotten and left the debris on top of that box. That is exactly the theory of res ipsa loquitur.
In negligence cases, it’s not always easy to point to the bad actor and say, “Oh, you hit me,” “You mopped that floor right there and left it wet without a wet floor sign,” “Your dog bit me,” or “You have a product that’s defective.”
As an attorney, while working through a case, you often find yourself returning to the core elements that comprise the negligence law definition. You have to be able to prove that the bad actor had a duty. You have to be able to prove that there was a breach of that duty. You have to go prove causation. You have to prove damages.
You may not be able to point directly to the defendant’s actions, but you certainly can infer their responsibility. In turn, you can infer that the defendant’s breach of that standard of care caused damages and injuries to the plaintiff.
If you have questions about negligence, give Negretti & Associates a call at (602) 531-3911. We’ll talk through your questions and make sure you walk away fully informed.