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What is Negligence?

We hear the term “negligence” all the time, and we see it mentioned in law firm advertisements and thrown about in statements and press releases, but what does negligence actually mean? The Merriam-Webster’s dictionary provides one definition as, “failure to exercise the care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in like circumstances.” When it comes to proving “negligence” in court, that dictionary definition refers to just one aspect of what a plaintiff must show to recover damages, that aspect being that a defendant “breached” a duty to a plaintiff by failing to exercise proper care. In addition to proving this breach of duty, a plaintiff must also show that the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff in the first place, that the breach of duty both actually and legally caused the plaintiff’s injuries, and that the plaintiff suffered damages as a result. Let’s take each of these four parts of negligence – duty, breach, causation, and damages – in turn.

The Defendant Owed the Plaintiff a Duty

A duty is a legal standard that a party is expected to honor in its manner of conduct. Various defendants have differing standards of duty to a plaintiff (including no duty at all in some cases), based on their relationship with the plaintiff. At one end, a hotel or school has a relatively high duty to protect the safety of its guests or students, while on the other end, (in most states) a stranger has no duty at all to help a person in need they see in public. Property owners have a certain duty to prevent dangerous conditions on their land that might harm guests (e.g. a live electrical wire in a parking lot light or dangerously icy sidewalks). Finally, we all have a duty to act in ways that do not present an unreasonable risk to others who would foreseeably be injured by our actions.

The Defendant Breached a Duty to the Plaintiff

After showing that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty, the next step is for the plaintiff to show that the defendant failed to honor that duty, or in other words breached the duty. Thus, if a grocery store had a duty to inspect and remedy dangerous conditions on its property, and store workers failed to notice and/or remedy a fluid spill in an aisle, causing a customer to slip, the store would have breached its duty to inspect and remedy dangerous conditions on its property. Likewise, if a person lights dangerous fireworks in a crowded residential area, and one of the fireworks burns a nearby pedestrian, the defendant would have breached his duty to protect foreseeable plaintiffs from his unreasonably dangerous actions.

The Defendant’s Breach was the Actual and Legal Causation of the Plaintiff’s Injuries

Once duty and breach are established, the plaintiff will need to prove that the defendant’s breach was both the actual cause and legal cause of his injuries. What is the difference between actual cause and legal cause? Actual cause refers to the fact that the plaintiff’s injuries were a result – either directly or indirectly – of the defendant’s actions. For instance, had the defendant not carelessly chopped down a tree which took out a nearby power line as it went down, then the hospital would not have lost power, and a patient on a pacemaker would not have suffered cardiac arrest.

So what then is legal causation? Legal causation, or as it’s often referred to, “proximate cause,” says that, with negligence, we will only hold a defendant liable where it was foreseeable that the plaintiff would be injured. Defendants will use a proximate cause argument to limit liability, but a tough personal injury attorney will make the case that the plaintiff’s injuries were in fact a foreseeable result of the defendant’s actions.

The Plaintiff Suffered Damages as a Result

Finally, we get to damages. A negligence claim requires that the plaintiff prove that he or she suffered injuries as a result of the defendant’s actions for which she should be compensated. In some ways, damages can be the most straightforward and also the most challenging aspect of asserting a negligence claim. Showing that you, the plaintiff, were injured can be easier than proving causation, as you can clearly show that you were injured through your own medical records and person. Where damages becomes complicated is in calculating the future costs of medical care you might need over a lifetime (including rehabilitation, in-home care, additional surgeries, etc.), lost wages and lost income potential over a lifetime, and difficult-to-quantify damages such as past and future pain and suffering. An experienced personal injury attorney will work with medical and financial experts to put together damages figures that will be persuasive before a jury calculating a damage award.

Get Experienced Legal Representation with Your New York Personal Injury Case

Getting legal representation from experienced New York trial attorneys from the very start is important to ultimately prevailing and achieving the best settlement possible, without making disastrous mistakes or waiving important rights because you did not have the advice of a knowledgeable and experienced attorney. For help in a personal injury matter in Orange County and the Hudson Valley region, contact Dupée & Monroe, P.C. in Goshen for a no-cost, confidential consultation.

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