What Are the Four Elements of Negligence
In law school, students are taught that there are 4 elements of negligence: duty, breach of duty, damages, and causation.
Essentially, you can bring a lawsuit for negligence if the defendant had a duty to be careful around you, the defendant breached that duty of care, you suffered injury, and the defendant’s conduct was the proximate cause of the harm.
However, anyone who has practiced law in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania knows that proximate cause can be separated into two parts under certain circumstances.
The causation element can sometimes consist of two parts: proximate causation and actual causation.
Duty & Breach
The first two elements of a negligence case are closely related because, in order to breach a duty, you need to have that duty in the first place.
In negligence, a duty is the legal obligation to conform your conduct to a particular standard of care.
Whether or not there is such a duty can depend on many things, but generally, it exists when there’s a special relationship between the defendant and plaintiff. This can include the relationship between a doctor and patient, a landowner and a visitor, or someone with custody of another.
Once that duty has been established, whether there was a breach is determined by asking “did the defendant breach the duty owed to the plaintiff—in other words, did the defendant fail to exercise the level of care required of them?”
What standard of care is required also depends on the relationship between the parties involved. Most regular people are held to the “reasonable person” standard, which asks what a reasonable person would do in similar circumstances.
There are some exceptions. Children, for example, are still growing and developing, so using a “reasonable person” (which is usually an adult) may not be an accurate assessment of the child’s conduct. Similarly, doctors and other medical professionals are held to a higher standard.
Rather than comparing a doctor to the average reasonable person, it is more prudent to compare them to other professionals with similar experience.
Damages or Harm
An important part of negligence is the harm suffered by the plaintiff. Although the name might be slightly confusing, this element is called “damages” because it requires that the court be able to compensate the plaintiff for their injuries.
If the plaintiff didn’t suffer any harm, then they cannot sue for negligence.
Damages in a negligence case can differ depending on the facts but can include things like past and future medical expenses and compensation for emotional harm.
As explained by the Pennsylvania Superior Court in Reilly v. Tiergarten, “proximate cause is a question of law, to be determined before the question of the actual cause may be put to the jury. which the judge must decide.”
The question in Reilly was whether the defendant’s actions were so remote that it should not be held responsible for any injury caused to the minor plaintiff by the police.
In the Reilly case, a minor was served alcohol at a tavern in violation of state law. When he got home, he assaulted his father with a knife and the police were called to the scene.
When the police arrived, the armed minor was shot by the police officers. A lawsuit was brought against the tavern for the shooting injuries received by the minor.
The court held that the claim of negligence against the tavern for serving liquor to a minor was so remote with respect to the injuries latter received as a result of the shooting that the tavern could not as a matter of law be held legally responsible and, therefore, granted summary judgment and dismissed the case.
The key test is whether the injury the defendant suffered would have been foreseen by an ordinary person as the probable and natural outcome of his conduct.
If not, then the defendant cannot be held responsible for the injury.
In Reilly, the court held it was not foreseeable that a minor served liquor would go home, assault his father with a knife, and then be shot by the investigating police.
Here is another example where proximate causation might be in dispute. Say a person is walking their dog when they are hit by a car. But the car was swerving to avoid a ball that had been thrown into the road. The person struck by the car wants to sue the person who threw the ball onto the road.
Does proximate causation exist so that the defendant knew or should have known that throwing a ball in the road could lead to a collision? The answer might be “yes.”
But imagine that a person was carrying groceries into their house when the bag tore open. Soup cans rolled out into the road, causing a driver to swerve and strike a pedestrian.
In this case, would the average person have foreseen that someone would get hit by a vehicle because they lifted a bag of groceries out of their vehicle which later ripped?
The answer is certainly “no,” so this person cannot be a proximate cause of the accident—even if the accident would not have happened but for their carrying the bag of groceries. Proximate causation raises important policy considerations.
What conduct should courts hold responsible for injuries and which conduct is too remote?
An attorney can help analyze this situation.
Once a judge decides proximate causation, the jury will decide actual causation.
Actual causation is fairly simple: did the defendant’s conduct substantially contribute or was it a factual cause of the defendant’s injuries? In many cases, the answer is obvious.
For example, if you were T-boned in an intersection by a speeding motorist and broke your shin bone when it slammed into the dashboard, then the driver’s reckless conduct clearly contributed to your broken bone.
However, there are some situations where actual causation could be in dispute. For example, you might have had a pre-existing injury to your back when you fell while skiing.
After a car accident, you might claim that your back has been hurt in the crash, but the defendant could allege that you really hurt your back while skiing.
A jury will need to decide whether the accident was the actual cause of the back injury.
Medical malpractice cases are another situation where actual causation is often in dispute.
If a doctor prescribed the wrong medication and you developed a tumor, then an expert witness will probably need to testify to connect the doctor’s error to your health issue.
These complicated issues are outside a jury’s understanding, so expert testimony on actual causation is required.
Negligence Attorneys Representing the Injured
Accident cases are very confusing, and injured victims need confident legal guidance during this turbulent time.
As medical bills arrive in your mailbox, you might be wondering whether you can hold the person who injured you accountable.
The good news is that you can.
At PhillyLaw, we have brought many lawsuits on behalf of innocent victims injured or killed as a result of medical malpractice, defective products, car accidents, truck accidents, slip and falls, and other serious accidents.
We are a full-service personal injury law firm with more than 40+ years of experience.
Contact us today. We will be happy to get to work on your case immediately, but you need to contact us first.