Negligence – When Does an Accident Create Legal Liability?

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Sometimes, accidents and bad things just happen – car crashes, slips and falls, bad outcomes from medical treatment. Not all accidents create legal liability. How do you know when someone is legally responsible for an accident? A legal concept called “Negligence” determines when an accident can result in a lawsuit.

Negligence – Legal Liability for Accidents

In the United States, a legal concept called “Negligence” determines whether an accident will result in legal liability. There are four elements which must be proven to establish Negligence: (1) a legal duty to act reasonably and carefully; (2) a failure or breach of a duty to act reasonably and carefully; (3) a causal connection between the conduct and the accident; and (4) an actual loss or damages resulting from the accident.

Duty

A duty is an obligation required by the law to be careful or act reasonably. When someone drives a car, they have a duty to be careful. A property owner has a duty to keep the property in reasonably safe condition and avoid doing dangerous things around people who are on the property. A doctor has a duty to treat patients in a careful manner and to have the knowledge and exercise the skill possessed by other doctors.

Breach of Duty

Breach of duty is failure to exercise reasonable care. Stated otherwise, it is doing something that a reasonably careful person would not do or failing to do something that a reasonably careful person would do. Examples: Driving 75 miles per hour in a 25 zone; talking on a cell phone or texting in rush hour traffic; turning around to talk to your friend in the backseat while driving 65 on the highway; allowing a deep pothole to go unrepaired on the sidewalk in front of your business; failing to fix a broken railing on a steep staircase at your home; a surgeon failing to remove a sponge from a patient during surgery or operating on the wrong body part; or an attorney failing to file a lawsuit on time.

Causation

Negligence requires a close causal connection between the breach of duty and a resulting injury. If the breach of duty contributed to causing the accident, there will be legal liability. However, if something else caused the accident or injury, there can be no legal liability. Examples: A driver is speeding, but the accident happened because a pedestrian jumped into the road just before the driver hit him; someone fell on the damaged sidewalk, but it was because that person was drunk or was pushed by someone else, not because of the defect; or the surgery patient with the sponge left in his belly died after surgery, but it was because of a massive heart attack, not anything related to the sponge.

Actual Loss or Damage

In order to have a case for Negligence, actual losses or damages must result from the accident. There must be some actual injury to the victim. The mere fact that “somebody could have been hurt” is not enough to create legal liability. Examples: A driver rear ends your car, but you are not injured and your car has no damage; someone slips and falls on snow that you piled up in the middle of your sidewalk but they are not hurt; or your family doctor fails to diagnose that you are having a stroke, but an Emergency Room doctor does an hour later and the delay in diagnosis caused you no damages.

Sometimes, accidents just happen and nobody is at fault. Other times, accidents are caused by Negligence and there are legal consequences. The purpose of the law of Negligence is to make sure that a legal case does not arise in every situation where something bad happens. Instead, the courts should be involved only when an accident causes actual damages and could have been prevented by the exercise of good judgment and reasonable care.

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