Everyone has heard of the infamous McDonald's’ hot coffee case and Erin Brockovich. But most people still don’t know the four basic elements of negligence law, also called “personal injury law”. All four elements must be proven by the plaintiff (the injured person) to establish negligence against the defendant (the wrongdoer) to recover damages for the plaintiff’s harm. The basic concepts are straightforward, even though most people do not learn about them unless they go the law school.
Element One, Duty:
The first element of “duty”, simply put, means that the defendant had an obligation, standard of care, or “duty”, to act in a reasonable, prudent, and safe manner towards the Plaintiff and to not cause them harm. For example, a driver of a car owes a duty to other drivers and pedestrians on the roadway to operate their vehicle safely and to obey traffic laws.
Element Two, Breach:
A plaintiff must next show that the defendant violated or “breached” their duty to act in a reasonable, safe, and prudent manner. For example, a driver who speeds 90 miles per hour down the highway, with their headlights off, in the middle of the night has “breached” their duty to other drivers to safely operate their car.
Element Three, Causation:
The plaintiff must also show that they were harmed because of the Plaintiff’s breach of duty. California’s jury instructions phrases the requirement this way, “the defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s harm.” A rear-end car accident may easily “cause” whiplash, neck pain, and a broken bumper.
Element Four, Damages:
Lastly, the plaintiff must establish that they were harmed or “damaged” as a result of the defendant’s negligence. In personal injury law, damages include lost income, mental and physical pain and suffering, and medical expenses and care.
These four rules of negligence can be applied to any situation, such as car accidents, bike accidents, or a slip and fall at a store.
To illustrate the basic elements of negligence, take the case of Mike and his professional landscaper, Jared. Mike has persistent low-back pain and regularly hires Jared to mow his grass. On 4/20/2017, Jared arrives at Mike’s house in Santa Cruz under the influence of marijuana. Shortly afterwards, Jared runs over Mike with his ride-on lawn mower while Jared is distracted. As a result, Mike receives lacerations, misses one-week of work, has large medical bills, and has a new fear of heavy machinery. He continues to have low-back pain.
Mike has a nice case of negligence against his landscaper, Jared. Jared owed a duty and standard of care to his customers, including Mike, to safely operate his landscaping equipment. Jared breached that duty when he operated the mower while intoxicated. Mike received cuts and wounds in the accident which were clearly caused by being run over, resulting in medical bills and lost work. However, Mike had existing back pain before the accident occurred and therefore, Jared may successfully argue that he did not cause harm to Mike’s back. Mike may seek damages from Jared in the form of money for missed work, his medical bills, and importantly for the physical and mental pain and suffering caused by the trauma of being run over.
Don’t be fooled; in California, there are hundreds of nuances, exceptions, and special laws that apply to each of these four basic elements. Personal injury law is complex. However, the basic principles should be understood by the general public.
Have you been injured in Santa Cruz or Monterey County as a result of someone’s negligence? Contact the Law Office of Brian Mathias.
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