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The 4 Elements of Negligence

You’ve suffered an injury that you believe could have been avoided, had it not been for someone else’s carelessness. Maybe you’ve even had a family member die in what you see as an avoidable accident. You have the right to receive financial compensation for your injuries or losses, but first you and your lawyer must prove negligence.

The 4 elements of negligence are duty of care, breach of duty, causation, and damages. All four must be proven to win a personal injury lawsuit.

Duty of Care

It’s not enough to simply prove you were injured by someone else. You need to prove that the person involved owed you a duty of care. That is, they are responsible for you in some way.

If the lawsuit is over a car accident, duty of care will be easy enough to establish. We all owe a duty of care to other drivers on the road when we take our car out. If your injuries came from a slip and fall in a store parking lot, the store owes a duty of care to its customers. Doctors owe a duty of care to their patients. As a homeowner, you owe a duty of care to those who come on your property.

Other examples, though, are more muddled. What is your duty of care as a homeowner to the person who walks along the sidewalk in front of your house? Or to the person who came uninvited? Does the doctor who offered what proved to be a faulty opinion while you chatted informally outside of their office still owe you a duty of care in that environment?

The specific circumstances and context of each situation will be taken into consideration by the court. For now, it’s enough to know that without a duty of care, there is no basis for a personal injury lawsuit.

Breach of Duty

Now it needs to be shown that the person with a duty failed to exercise a reasonable standard of care in carrying out their responsibilities.

Let’s consider a grocery store parking lot. There’s no question the store has a duty to keep that parking lot safe. As you push your shopping cart to the car, you’re talking on a cellphone with one of the kids and don’t see a pothole near your vehicle. You suffer a badly injured ankle.

Did the store breach their duty of care by not having the pothole filled in? Again, circumstances matter, but there’s a good chance the answer is yes. Reasonable care of the lot requires maintenance, or–at the very least–a sign warning people of where the potholes are.

Now let’s say the problem in the store parking lot is that we had rain the night before, which has turned icy by morning. A person arrives right when the grocery store opens at 7 AM. While walking in, they slip and fall. Was there a breach?

It’s possible, but a court will consider whether the store acted reasonably. The employees might have been getting ready to get the lot salted when the accident happened. The person arriving was as aware of the conditions as anyone else (unlike the pothole). A court might not consider it a reasonable expectation that the lot already be salted the very minute the doors of the store open for business.

Causation

The failure to exercise reasonable care in the performance of an owed duty must be the cause of your injuries. What if the case involves a car accident, where the driver is suing over a back injury? The other driver’s fault in the matter has been established, the injuries are real, so it would seem this is an open-and-shut case.

Except that the accident was a fender-bender that wasn’t particularly serious, and the injured driver already had scoliosis of the spine. That’s an extremely unfortunate situation to be sure, but the at-fault driver isn’t going to be held accountable for injuries that aren’t related to the car accident.

Damages

The final piece of the puzzle is that the injury–caused by a failure to exercise reasonable care in the performance of an owed duty–must have damaged you in some way.

Let’s say your neighbor invited you over for a barbeque and a game of pickup basketball. The invitation means they owe you a duty of care. During the basketball game, you injure your ankle in a pothole on the driveway. The neighbor breached the duty by not fixing the playing area of the driveway or at least notifying all the players to be careful. That failure indisputably caused you to be unaware of the risk when you drove to the basket in that area of the driveway.

The "problem" is that after some brief swelling, your ankle is fine a few hours later. It was one of those sprains that can hurt a lot in the moment and then quickly fades away.

There are no real damages to collect. Perhaps you might try and claim psychological distress, but that’s a longshot in a case like this. There aren’t any medical damages. There’s nothing to file a lawsuit over.

Winning personal injury lawsuits can be done, but it requires real legal diligence at every step of the process. Conner & Roberts, PLLC has the experience necessary to know what questions to ask and what evidence to seek out. Furthermore, we have a real tenacity when it comes to fighting each and every detail of a case on behalf of our clients. If you’ve been injured in an accident, give us a call at (423) 299-4489 or contact us online to set up an initial consultation.
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