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What is Negligence and How Do You Prove It?

Posted in Personal Injury on Friday, December 8, 2023.

Accidents happen, sometimes causing injuries that lead to costly medical care and other expenses.

When you are hurt because someone else took unnecessary risks, you could collect financial compensation in a negligence lawsuit. What is negligence, and how do you prove it? Working with a personal injury attorney could help you show the court that the necessary elements of negligence apply to your case.

Proving the Legal Elements of Negligence

Infractions under civil law are called torts. As shown in Ramalingam v. Keller Williams (Pa. 2015), a plaintiff must prove four elements to show tortious negligence:

Duty of Care

People have a duty to act with a reasonable standard of care or to refrain from acting with unreasonable risk. For example, drivers are expected to pay attention to the road and their surroundings when they are behind the wheel.

To prove that a reasonable duty of care existed, generally, the plaintiff must show it was likely the defendant’s action could cause harm and that there were ways to decrease the risk. A driver who stops watching the road to text could possibly cause a collision that injures someone. Safely pulling over to send the message is a reasonable way to negate that risk.

Breaching the Duty of Care

After establishing a duty of care existed, the injured person must prove the defendant failed to meet that duty.

In the example of the texting driver, the defendant breached the duty to drive attentively when they took their eyes off the road to look at their phone.

Causing Harm

The third element of negligence is causation. The defendant’s actions must be the cause of the resulting injury. This includes actual or cause-in-fact causation. If it had not been for the defendant’s actions, the plaintiff would not have been harmed.

The distracted driver who hits a pedestrian in a crosswalk is likely the actual cause of the walker’s leg breaking on impact with the car.

Pennsylvania also recognizes proximate causation, wherein the defendant causes a foreseeable chain reaction that leads to the injury. If the pedestrian breaks their leg jumping out of the car’s way, the jury may find that the driver was the proximate cause of the injury, even though they did not directly hit the walker, and that this result was a foreseeable consequence of not watching the road.

Causing Damages

The harm the defendant caused must result in actual damages that require financial compensation.

When the pedestrian jumps out of the way of the distracted driver and lightly bruises their knee, which does not require any medical attention or cause any other expense, they are unlikely to prove they need restitution.

Comparative Fault Defense to Negligence

A person who can prove the four elements of negligence must still prepare to argue against any defenses the defendant may raise. Comparative fault is one of the most common; under Pennsylvania Code 231 § 7102, a defendant could try to argue the plaintiff was the one to cause the accident because they were also behaving negligently at the time.

In Pennsylvania, the jury must find the plaintiff less than 50 percent responsible for the accident in order for them to collect any money from the defendant. The amount they can collect will be reduced by the same percentage of fault the jury assigns to them. When a court finds the plaintiff more than 50 percent responsible, they will be denied any compensation at all.

In the distracted driving example, when the pedestrian was illegally crossing a multi-lane highway, the defendant may argue that hitting the pedestrian would have been unavoidable even if they had not been texting at the time of the collision. Therefore, it was the plaintiff’s breach of their duty of care that is responsible for their own injuries.

Get Help From an Attorney to Prove Negligence

While it may help you to have a general idea of Pennsylvania’s negligence laws, the issue can be quite nuanced. When you are wondering what is negligence and how do you prove it, talk to a lawyer. An experienced civil law attorney could review the facts of your case and apply the applicable laws and exceptions to give you a higher chance of succeeding in court. Contact us now to discuss your case.