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A look at the four elements of negligence

On this blog, we often note that an injured person can hold a negligent driver liable for their damages. This principle underpins all personal injury law. In this post, we will elaborate on each of these terms: negligence, liability and damages.

Negligence is similar to, but not exactly the same thing as carelessness. The term has a specific legal meaning. If you are trying to prove that a driver caused an accident and  your injuries through negligence, you must prove four elements: duty, breach, causation and damages.

Duty is a concept most of us take for granted. We owe a legal duty of care to others to avoid harming them. Drivers owe a duty to other people on and near the roadway to exercise care while driving so as to avoid the risk of a foreseeable accident. Breach comes about when they fail to exercise this duty. For instance, a driver who takes her eyes off the road to look at texts on her smartphone has breached her duty of care to others on the roadway.

The next element is causation. This element ties the breach to the injury. To prove negligence, the plaintiff must show not only that the defendant had a duty and breached that duty, but also that this breach was the cause of the injury. To further illustrate this concept, take the texting driver from the example above and imagine her in a three-car accident where a drunk driver crashes into her and another car. The texting driver breached her duty of care by looking at her phone, but her breach did not cause the injury to the other driver. The drunk driver caused it.

Finally, there is the element of damages. This element refers to the losses the plaintiff suffered as a result of the accident. Damages can include medical bills, lost income and other purely economic losses, as well as non-economic losses such as pain and suffering. The primary purpose of a personal injury lawsuit is to compensate the injured for the damages they suffered as a result of the accident.

With this in mind, the plaintiff has to show that the damages resulted from the accident. For instance, the plaintiff must provide copies of their medical bills and show that the medical treatment was for injuries caused by the accident. They will not be able to recover compensation for medical needs that originated before the accident, or unrelated needs that arose after the accident. However, a plaintiff may be able to recover compensation if they can show how their later medical needs were directly or indirectly related to the accident. For instance, a person who was injured in a car accident may later develop depression or other mental health problems as a result of the physical and emotional trauma they have suffered due to the accident and its aftermath.