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Negligence Definition (What Is Negligence: All You Need To Know)

What is Negligence Definition?

How do you legally define it?

What are the essential elements you should know!

Keep reading as we have gathered exactly the information that you need!

Let’s dig into our legal dictionary!

Are you ready?

Let’s get started!

What Is Negligence

You probably heard of the concept of negligence.

You may have heard that “the doctor was negligent” or “that driver caused an accident by negligence”.

What does “negligence” mean exactly?

Essentially, negligence is a central notion to personal injury cases.

In essence, if you are suing someone for damages or injuries caused by their negligence, you must absolutely be able to prove the negligent act so you can hope to get any compensation.

If your attorney can prove negligence in court, that you won’t win your personal injury lawsuit.

In this article, we will provide you with a comprehensive review of the definition of the term negligence.

We will look at its common definition (used in everyday English), it’s legal definition, its elements in law, and other legal aspects important to understand its meaning.

Negligence Definition

How do you define negligence in common non-legal terms?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term negligence is defined as:

Failure to exercise the care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in like circumstances

When most people (nonlawyers) refer to the word negligence in common English, they are referring to someone who was not careful or prudent.

The common definition is quite broad and many actions, behaviors, or conduct may be qualified as negligent.

For example, in non-legal terms, you can say that the following actions are negligent actions:

  • Cutting your finger while making salad
  • Forgetting your wallet to go to the store
  • Losing your keys in the store

Now let’s look at the legal definition of negligent to understand the difference with the common definition of negligence.

Negligence Legal Definition

How do you define negligence in law?

In law, the courts use a more narrow definition of negligence to ensure that not all actions and conduct we perform in our everyday lives get legally qualified (falling under the legal theory of tort and tort law).

The negligence law definition is important as a person’s legal liability to compensate another for damages will be based on it.

According to the Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, negligence in law is defined as:

A failure to behave with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances. 

Although the legal definition of negligent may seem close to the common definition of the term, they are substantively different.

The main difference is that in the negligence legal definition, the law compares the behavior and conduct of a person against that of a “reasonable person” or “someone of ordinary prudence”.

This means that the law does not qualify every single act as a negligent one.

The notion of a “reasonable person” allows for a human being to make mistakes (it does not seek perfection).

However, a reasonable person would not drive drunk and cause injury to another but may forget his or her keys in the car and get locked out.

Elements of Negligence

What are the elements that you must prove based on the legal definition of negligence?

For the court to define and qualify a conduct as “negligent”, they have established a standard for proving negligence.

In a negligence lawsuit, your attorney must prove the basic four elements of negligence:

  • Duty of care (or standard of care)
  • Breach of duty
  • Causation
  • Damages 

Let’s look at each of the legal components of negligence. 

Element 1: Duty of Care

The first element to prove in a civil lawsuit is the duty of care.

The plaintiff must be able to demonstrate that the defendant had a duty of care towards that person.

In many cases, the duty of care is not very difficult to prove.

For example, you need to show that the defendant should have acted with reasonable caution such as driving safely to avoid an accident or respecting the traffic laws.

Element 2: Breach of Duty

The second element to prove is that the defendant breached the duty owed and failed to behave in a reasonable manner or act with reasonable care.

For example, the defendant was speeding in a school zone putting children at risk.

The moment the plaintiff is able to prove the standard of care and the breach of that standard, the defendant will be held legally liable for any damages caused.

However, the damages and causation will have to be proved. 

Let’s look at those.

Element 3: Causation

Causation is the third element to prove in a negligence case to achieve the legal threshold of conduct where the defendant is responsible to compensate the plaintiff for damages.

The plaintiff must be able to demonstrate that the defendant’s conduct resulted in damages but there is a connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injuries.

In other words, the plaintiff has to show that the injuries are direct as a result of the defendant’s breach of duty.

Other damages or other non-related injuries suffered by the plaintiff will not legally be attributed to the defendant.

In certain cases, the causation is really simple to prove.

For example, a reckless driver causes an accident and the victim suffers a broken bone resulting in medical expenses and loss of wages.

In other cases, the courts will accept a relationship based on a “proximate cause” representing causation that is viewed as direct in the eyes of the law.

Element 4: Damages

The last element to prove to get compensation in a negligence lawsuit is “damages”.

The plaintiff has to demonstrate to the court, judge, or jury that the defendant’s actions caused harm that resulted in injuries, losses, and expenses.

“Damages” is probably the most difficult element to prove in any negligence case.

For the injuries suffered, the plaintiff will need to establish the “amount” of damages suffered.

How much did the plaintiff lose or incur in expenses due to the defendant’s negligent conduct?

Are there medical expenses, lost wages, rehabilitation costs, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of consortium, pain, anxiety, suffering?

Once the plaintiff is able to demonstrate that the defendant owed it a duty of care, the duty was breached, it resulted in damages, and there was causation between the injury and the damages, that’s when you have a successful negligence lawsuit.

Type of Negligence

What are the different types of negligence?

Defining negligence is not an easy mathematical equation of either this person is 100% responsible or the other.

In real life, a person may be partially responsible or partially negligent.

For example, two drivers may get into a car accident where both of them were equally responsible for the accident.

To account for the possibility that a person may be partially responsible for an accident or several people could be held responsible for an injurious event, the law has come up with the contributory negligence and the comparative negligence theories.

Let’s look at each.

Contributory Negligence

Contributory negligence (pure contributory negligence or contributory fault) is a legal theory stating that if the victim of an injury was at fault for the injuries suffered (no matter to what extent), then the victim is barred from claiming any compensation from the other party.

This may result in potentially unfair outcomes.

For example, in theory, a victim who was 1% responsible or at fault would lose his or her rights to sue the other party.

There are some states that use a pure contributory negligence theory for personal injury claims such as Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington DC.

Comparative Negligence

If you suffer injuries in a state that applies the “comparative negligence” rule (or the comparative fault rule), the victim of an accident may be able to get compensation even if partially responsible for the injuries.

In other words, the law will attribute a percentage of responsibility to the plaintiff and the defendant.

Then, the defendant will be responsible for that percentage of the total injuries caused to the plaintiff.

For example, if the law attributes 25% of the responsibility to the plaintiff and 75% to the defendant, the plaintiff may get compensation of $7,500 for total damages of $10,000.

Across the United States, you have different flavors of comparative negligence:

  • Pure comparative negligence
  • Modified comparative negligence

In pure comparative negligence states, the law will compensate the plaintiff directly in proportion to the defendant’s percentage of responsibility.

For example, if the plaintiff was 90% responsible for the damages and the defendant 10%, the law allows the plaintiff to get compensation for 10% regardless of the fact that it was the plaintiff who was mainly responsible for the whole thing.

In the states that use the “modified” comparative negligence, the plaintiff can seek damages even if partially responsible for the injuries provided the plaintiff was not responsible for more than 50% (some states put the threshold at 51%).

Define Negligence: Takeaways

So, what is the definition of negligence?

Let’s look at a summary of our findings.

Define: Negligence

  • Definition Negligence in common English: someone who acts in an imprudent or careless manner
  • Definition Negligence in law: someone who fails to exercise care towards others as expected of a reasonable person in the same circumstances 
  • Negligence in law requires the plaintiff to prove four elements: duty of care, breach of duty, damages, and causation
  • If the plaintiff or the victim was also partially responsible for damages, the law provides for the partition of responsibility based on the theory of contributory negligence or comparative negligence 
Comparative negligence
Contributory negligence
Criminal negligence 
Defendant definition
Elements of negligence 
Medical malpractice
Negligence per se 
Negligent tort
Plaintiff definition
Tort definition
Burden of proof 
Duty of care
Economic damages
Noneconomic damages
Prima facie 
Proximate cause 
Punitive damages 
Reasonable person 
Restitutio in integrum 
Special damages 
Strict liability 
Tort liability

Editorial Staffhttps://lawyer.zone
Hello Nation! I'm a lawyer and passionate about law. I've practiced law in a boutique law firm, worked in a multi-national organization and as in-house counsel. I've been around the block! On this blog, I provide you with golden nuggets of information about lawyers, attorneys, the law and legal theories. Enjoy!


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