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What Is Negligence in California Personal Injury Law?

To recover compensation in most California personal injury cases, a plaintiff must show that the defendant was negligent. Generically, “negligence” means carelessness, or not acting like a reasonably careful person. More technically speaking, negligence is defined by certain legal elements, and a plaintiff must produce evidence or arguments to satisfy each one to win the case. When you speak with a Los Angeles personal injury lawyer, some of the questions they ask you will be aimed at proving these elements.

What are the elements of negligence in personal injury cases?

To prove negligence, a plaintiff needs to be able to show that:

  • The defendant owed a plaintiff a duty of care (a legal obligation to do or refrain from doing something);
  • The defendant breached the duty of care;
  • The defendant’s negligence was a proximate cause of the accident; and
  • The plaintiff incurred damages.

If a defendant can disprove even one of these, they must be found not liable, so it is important to build a strong case focused on these elements.

When is there a legal duty?

Whether a defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff is a legal question – this means a judge can decide it based on law instead of letting the jury decide it based on the evidence presented.

The answer to whether the defendant owed a duty to others may lie in a statute or case law spelling out the legal responsibilities between different groups of people. However, there are some basic rules of thumb that you can generally count on:

  • There is a general duty to exercise caution in whatever you are doing
  • There is no general duty to help someone else
  • There is a duty to help someone if you created the peril
  • There is a duty to help someone if you are in a special relationship (like parent-child or caregiver-ward) with them
  • Once you begin an action to help someone, you have a duty to follow through

Examples of duty of care in California personal injury cases

Determining whether there was a duty of care can be a technical undertaking. Some of the more common examples of where duty arises include:

  • The duty of doctors and other medical professionals to exercise the requisite professional standard of care for their area
  • The duty of drivers to obey traffic laws to prevent accidents
  • The duty of a property owner to keep the premises safe or warn of known hazards
  • The duty of mandated reporters of suspected child abuse

Not every situation is clear-cut. Speak with a Los Angeles personal injury attorney if you were injured and believe someone who was involved may have been duty-bound to act differently.

Did the defendant breach a duty?

A breach of duty is a factual question that a jury must answer. Some of the issues that it may consider are:

  • What should the defendant have done, and did they do it?
  • Was the risk of harm foreseeable?
  • Would an alternative action have been reasonable, or would it have imposed a financial or another substantial burden?

For example, after a slip and fall accident involving a leaking roof creating puddles in a store, a jury may consider whether the warning sign that a store manager placed near a spill was visible to patrons and whether a delay in repair was reasonable considering costs for emergency construction work and the likelihood of an injury.

Was the defendant’s breach a cause of the accident?

A cause-in-fact is not always sufficiently related to an accident to impose liability. For example, imagine that a car ran a red light and delayed your entering an intersection by a few seconds; a mile down the road, you got into an accident with another car that illegally changed lanes. If the first car had not run the light, you would not have been present when the second car changed lanes, and the accident would not have happened. But the first car’s action was not logically related to the accident and the driver would not be held responsible for it.

This logical relation is known as “proximate cause.” To be considered a proximate cause, the defendant’s action needs to be more directly related, or even necessary for an accident like that to happen. This is another question of fact, so a jury gets to answer it.

Did the plaintiff suffer damages?

If the plaintiff did not sustain injuries or property damage from the accident, there is no basis for a lawsuit or insurance claim. A jury will determine the amount of the damages sustained, and it can include economic losses like medical bills and lost wages as well as non-economic damages like pain and suffering and disability.

Speak with a personal injury lawyer

If you have been injured in California and believe someone else’s negligence caused the accident, you may be entitled to compensation. The Los Angeles personal injury lawyers at Salamati Law are here to help. Our team is dedicated to helping personal injury victims fight for what they deserve.

Attorney Sean Salamati understands the pressure that individuals and families face in the aftermath of a serious injury. He maintains the highest standards of legal representation. Because our office works on contingency, you never pay a legal fee upfront. Call today to schedule a free, confidential consultation.

No Obligation, No Fees Guaranteed, Unless We Win

We are committed to negotiate your case aggressively, strategically and creatively. Personal injury lawsuits are retained on a contingency fee agreement, and plaintiffs will pay no legal fees unless the firm is able to recover damages on your behalf.

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