Negligence: Legal Definition, Primary Elements, & ApplicationLast updated on: January 2, 2015
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The definition of negligence is “the failure to use ordinary care, or the failing to do that which a person of ordinary prudence would have done under the same or similar circumstances, or doing that which a person of ordinary prudence would not have done under the same or similar circumstances.” What this means is doing something less than the safest alternative. It breaks down into several elements under the law that have to be shown in order to prove the case. If you can’t meet one of these elements then you cannot make your case.
The first element is a duty. That means that the person you’re alleging to have been negligent had a duty to do something under the circumstances. Think about this in another way. If there’s a car accident and you’re driving by and you’re not involved, you don’t have any duty to the people involved in that accident under the law because you weren’t involved in the collision. You didn’t cause or contribute to the negligence involved or the circumstances, so you don’t have any duty to those people. However, there are circumstances where you could have a duty to someone. Generally, we think of that in terms of causing or contributing to the event. That creates a duty. Also, there are several circumstances where you have a duty to the public in general, for instance, when it comes to following traffic laws.
Breach of Duty
Once we identify the duty, we have to show what the defendant breached the duty that they owed. In a simple example, you have a duty to stop at a stop sign which is established by the Texas Transportation Code. If you don’t stop at the stop sign then you have breached that duty.
Cause in Fact
The next question to ask is was the breach itself a cause of the resulting harm? For example, was the failure to stop at the stop sign what actually caused or contributed to the crash? An example of this would be if a driver fails to stop at a stop sign, then goes down the road, and gets rear-ended. Did the running of the stop sign have anything to do with the crash that happened down the road? Probably not. That failure to stop didn’t have anything to do with causing the later crash. There is no cause in fact in that case. A related element of this is what is called proximate cause, which is looking at whether it was foreseeable that a breach of the duty could lead to harm.
The last thing to consider is if there was some sort of damage caused by this breach of duty. That seems fairly simple, but can be a bit more complicated in application. For example, sticking with the stop sign example, if I run the stop sign I have breached the duty I have to the public to obey traffic laws and it is foreseeable that a crash could occur, but if no crash does occur then there is no damage or injury and no case.
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