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What is Negligence?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Negligence, in a legal sense, is typically considered to be a failure to act in accordance with, or an action that is in opposition to, what a reasonable person would do. This hypothetical “reasonable person” is the basis for most claims of negligent behavior, and is typically the scale against which other people’s actions are considered. The five basic concepts behind establishing negligence in a court case are a duty of care, a breach of that duty, actual or legal cause, establishment of proximate cause, and harm resulting in damages.

The simplest understanding of negligence comes in understanding that it is basically the result of a person not behaving in a way that a reasonable person should. This is not always the same as inattention since someone can be quite attentive but still behave negligently. The five common elements of negligence are used to establish how a reasonable person should behave in a given situation, and then determine if that behavior was not followed by someone accused of being negligent.

Establishing duty of care regards determining the responsibilities of a reasonable person in a situation or role. It comes down to understanding the duty of a police officer on patrol, a factory working assembling a car, an engineer designing a building, and a barista serving hot coffee to customers. A breach of that duty is the establishment of negligent behavior by a person as he or she does not act in accordance with the duties of a reasonable person in that position. This can be both acting inappropriately and failing to act appropriately.

The actual or legal cause of a situation is involved with determining if something really caused something else. Someone can claim that an accident caused the person harm, but he or she must be able to prove actual causation to establish negligence. Proximate cause deals with how reasonable it is to predict that the causal events could occur. This deals with the theoretical distance between causes and events.

For example, a barista not properly affixing a lid onto a cup of hot coffee could reasonably be seen as the actual cause for that coffee burning a customer. The company that owned the coffee stand could also be considered reasonably responsible if it failed to train the employee in how to properly place lids on cups. On the other hand, the person who picked the beans used to make the coffee that burned the customer would not be considered to be a reasonable proximate cause of the negligence.

Finally, a person seeking redress for negligence must prove that harm did occur in order to seek damages for that harm. Someone burned by coffee must be able to show pictures of the burn and hospital or doctors bills treating the injury. All of this is used to establish how a reasonable person should have behaved and to judge whether that course of action was followed, and ultimately understand the consequences of such behavior.

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Discussion Comments
By anomle31 — On Aug 10, 2013

The reason why my boss asked for my maiden name and bank account was (so he said) to help me check my credit and to rent a place so I could leave my abusive boyfriend. Both the coworker and boss said it was a way to get rid of the boyfriend and be safe, and the boss said he could do it right there on his computer. So trusting that they were helping me, I gave him the information. Also, every time I was using my debit card the boyfriend would look at my PIN, which I changed a few times, then found my mail being taken at home.

Another question is, when I fill out the names of who I am filing against, do I put the bank's name as it was and the new name it changed to, and put the business name where I worked and my boss's name, coworker, the dead boyfriend and his young girlfriend on the side name also?

By anomle31 — On Aug 10, 2013

My question involves my now ex-boss, ex-coworker (who also was sleeping with my ex-boyfriend and stole my jewelry), my now deceased ex-boyfriend and his young girlfriend on the side (who also stole my valuables). They and the bank manager were all in cahoots together who stole over $75k of my money from my bank account. Domestic abuse was also involved, and my boss (who needed 35K to get his teeth implants, and later purchased a second home in Nevada, then being sneaking on the phone and computer) used the mail to be sure to get and accept the mail from them, which a letter came with my whole name on it -including my maiden name. It was hand printed in all scribble. I thought it was strange that I would get mail at work with all my names on it. After all, I worked in accounts receivable and did collections. One day my boss and a co-worker went to lunch together, telling me that we get mail from next door about the other properties he owns and rents out.

Although everyone knew me by my first and last name, and not the other previous married name and maiden name, when I was about to open that mail, my boss and coworker came back from lunch. My boss ripped the letter out of my hand and said, “Good. You got the mail.” I asked him why I was getting mail there with my whole name. He argued with me, denying it was my name, and shouted at me to get back to work. When I did collections, he wanted me to have customers pay with their credit card, which I did and collected a lot. He was using the credit card machine to take small amounts out of my account, after a co-worker asked in front of the boss if the bank called me when large amounts were put on my card, my boss asked for my bank account numbers and mother’s maiden name.

My boyfriend then diverted me from reconciling my bank accounts. The bank manger refused to let me change accounts when I told him something terrible was wrong and knew how to catch the thief red handed. The assistant manager, who called me when large amounts came out, saw me crying and asked what was wrong. I told her, and she turned to the bank manager and asked, “Why can’t she do that? He whispers to her and she goes back to her desk. He gets up and goes to a phone behind the tellers. She sees that comes to me and tells me to take my money and put it in a CD. He sees her talking to me, puts phone down comes and asks what she said to me. I told him I want to put my money in a CD. He gets mad and leaves his desk. The assistant manager and a teller helped me.

When I got home within an hour my boyfriend starts screaming at me, “Why did you take your money out? Where did you put it?” Then his friends start yelling at me, asking the same questions.

Three days later, I lost my job. The CD had to be broken several times because the $10K I left in my account disappeared fast, too. I became too ill to figure out what was happening. I have brain cancer and stress makes me incapacitated and too confused to concentrate. I have gotten papers from the court I am filling out now to file before the statue is up on in mid August. The papers are for personal injury, property damage and wrongful death the court clerk gave me after I explained the situation.

I am indigent, so I qualify for wavier of the filing fees. The trouble is, I’m confused about which box to choose from among all the options on the Civil Case cover sheet, and if a jury. or then estimated hours and days, and complex, extensive motion practice raising difficult or novel issues that will be time-consuming to resolve, a substantial amount of documentary evidence (Bank statements I had to buy showing monies removed by credit card and ATMs).

I can't afford an attorney to help me because I have nothing. I did call a few attorneys who never returned my calls. I met this judge who told me to file right away before the statute runs out, which I’m trying to do now. To say the least, I am very stressed about what to do. Any advice?

By anon327748 — On Mar 30, 2013

My daughter, age 11, was boarding a train. The previous train was late and this specific one was overcrowded. She was pushed from the back side of the carriage to the front as people got of. The doors of the train was kept open by men hanging out. She was pushed and fell out and rolled along the railway line. She was severely hurt, bruised and in pain. She stayed in hospital for 11 days. She still has a foot fracture that needs a third operation. She also needs to see the psychologist, Physio and neurologist. Now I need to know how can I go about suing Metrorail please.

By comfyshoes — On Sep 05, 2010

SurfNturf-I just want to say that medical negligence awards by the jury are in the form of compensatory damages and punitive damages.

Compensatory damages are a judgment of monetary relief for current medical bills and future health care needs as a result of the medical condition.

Punitive damages are additional damages that a patient seeks to further punish the doctor. These claims can result in multimillion dollar awards which is why doctors really seek the best negligence attorney possible.

By surfNturf — On Sep 05, 2010

Sneakers41-It is just awful when I hear stories like that.

I wanted to say that sometimes medical negligence also results in injuries to the patient. Medical negligence results when a doctor did not take reasonable care of the patient as a result the patient was injured.

For example, if a doctor prescribes medication that results in adverse reactions to the patient and the doctor did not investigate other medical conditions that the patient suffers from would probably need to see a medical negligence lawyer.

When prescribing medication a doctor needs to study the patient’s medical history as well as possible risk factors that might result in adverse effects.

For example, if a woman is a smoker and over the age of 35, and the doctor prescribes birth control pills with progesterone, then the doctor would be found medically negligent if the patient then develops a blood clot.

These are two well known risk factors that contribute to the condition and any doctor should know that. That is what is considered reasonable care.

By sneakers41 — On Sep 05, 2010

Moldova- You hear about cases like that all the time. People try to sue for things that are actually their fault.

I think that product liability negligence cases are quite different. In negligence lawsuits involving product liability negligence claims usually the manufacturer of the product is to blame for the injuries that were sustained.

For example, there was a crib manufacturer that was sued because a child's head got caught between the bars and suffocated. There are safety regulations regarding the spacing in cribs so the manufacturer settled these negligence claims and recalled the cribs.

By Moldova — On Sep 05, 2010

Negligence claims are brought about as a result of another person's actions that caused the injury.

In negligence law, contributory negligence involves in action in which a person is partly responsible for their own injuries.

For example, if a person were intoxicated while operating heavy machinery at work and happen to get injured, the injuries would be categorized as contributory negligence.

This means that the person was injured acted recklessly which caused the injury. These negligence damages tend to be smaller because juries realize that the person was injured as a result of their own actions not the actions of someone else.

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