Understanding A Negligence Argument In Personal Injury Law

When you think of negligence, what comes to mind? Is it based on action or inaction? Who decides the difference between an accident caused by bad luck versus conscious wrongdoing?

In personal injury law, negligence is a key term. In order for someone to be legally liable for someone else's injury, that person must have been negligent – or, to put it another way, they must have caused the injury by not acting in a reasonable or responsible manner.

If this sounds to you like it could be the basis for a lot of arguments, you would be right; showing that a defendant was or was not acting reasonably can be a large part of a personal injury case. That's why it's important to understand the parts that make up an argument of negligence.

Acting Carelessly (Breach of Duty)

You can think of this part of the argument as deciding whether the defendant acted with less care than you would expect of a normal adult. For example, think about a car accident. It's perfectly possible for a car to lose traction on ice and slide into another car – that doesn't necessarily mean that either driver was negligent.

Think about what you would expect from a driver who is driving in icy conditions. A reasonable driver would probably be driving more slowly and cautiously, perhaps even with snow tires or chains; they would not be considered negligent even if they got into an accident. On the other hand, if the driver were speeding or trying to talk on the phone while driving, they could very well be considered negligent.

Causing The Accident (Causation)

Continuing our icy driving example, negligence has to be connected to the accident itself. A speeding driver who is talking on the phone is certainly acting recklessly, but did their recklessness cause the accident? The key question to ask is whether things would have been different had they not been reckless.

If they rear-end another driver because they didn't leave themselves enough room to stop, the answer is yes. If they lose control in an intersection and slide out into traffic, causing two other cars to collide trying to avoid them, the answer could still be yes – you can argue that they caused the accident even though they did not directly hit another car.

Foreseeing the Accident (Proximate Causation)

To be legally liable for an accident, the cause also has to be clearly and directly connected to the negligent person. If our careless driver rear-ends someone, they have very clearly caused that accident. If the person they rear-ended suffers injuries such as whiplash, the careless driver is responsible for that; it is a foreseeable effect of rear-ending another car.

On the other hand, imagine that another driver has to slam on their brakes to avoid hitting the careless driver. Luckily, no accident happens. However, slamming on the brakes caused the luggage rack on the car to come loose, and the next day, it falls off the car on the highway. While you could trace the cause of this back to the negligent driver, it would be unreasonable to think that original reckless driver could foresee the luggage rack coming off. They would not be legally responsible.

Because of the complicated arguments involved as well as the variation in laws between states, it's important to have the advice and assistance of an injury attorney if you are involved in a personal injury lawsuit.