In a personal injury case, there are four parts to prove negligence: duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages. For a plaintiff to succeed in a negligence case, the defendant must have owed some sort of duty of care to the plaintiff. Secondly, the defendant must have breached that duty of care. Thirdly, the defendant must have caused the harm to occur, and finally, that causation must have resulted in damages. That may sound simple, but it’s not.
DUTY OF CARE
The first element is to establish that the defendant owed the plaintiff a legal duty of care under the circumstances. Brad says, “A duty arises typically when the law imposes an obligation on you, such as a businessowner keeping their property safe or driving a car in a prudent manner. Duties can also be based on normalcy in relationships. For instance, a parent has a duty to not endanger their child.” A duty of care may be owed in a professional relationship, such as the duties a financial advisor owes to his or her clients or the duties a health care provider has to his or her patients. In these situations, accepted standards within the industry determine what the courts may consider as negligence.
BREACHED DUTY OF CARE
This element is difficult to prove because it requires the plaintiff to show evidence of the defendant’s act of negligence. A breach of duty is anything that violates the accepted standards of care for the situation. Brad says, “A common breach of duty is driving your car in a negligent fashion. If you are looking at your cell phone and veer into another driver’s lane causing an accident, you’ve breached that duty.” It could also be a doctor’s failure to diagnose a condition or a pet owner negligently failing to prevent a dog bite incident. Proving negligence may require an investigation into the causes of the accident, eyewitness interviews, and the gathering of other relevant evidence.
Even if a plaintiff has indisputable evidence of the defendant’s negligence, he or she does not have a negligence claim unless there is proof that the breach of duty was the actual cause of the plaintiff’s harms. There are two components of causation, actual and proximate.
Actual cause, also known as cause in fact, is the timeline component of the defendant’s actions that led to the injuries. For example, the defendant was driving and was looking down at his cell phone. Because of that he failed to notice the traffic light had turned red and crashed into you. Your injuries were caused because the defendant ran the red light. So what is the cause in fact in this case? The defendant’s actions can be retraced to see what he could have done differently that would have prevented this crash from happening. The cause in fact is that he was looking at his phone and not paying attention to the road. If he had been paying attention, it’s likely he would have noticed the light was red and the crash would have never happened.
Seems simple, right? If cause in fact is this easily explained, why is proximate cause necessary? It’s because anything can be a cause in fact if we keep looking back in time. For example, if the defendant would have stayed home, this crash would not have happened, so the cause in fact could be that he left his house. Had the defendant decided to move to another city several years prior, this crash also would not have happened. Relying only on the “actual cause” makes it possible for anything to be used for causation, so that is where proximate causation comes into play.
Proximate causation is defined as “a happening which results in an event, particularly injury due to negligence or an intentional wrongful act.” This definition, however, doesn’t clearly explain actual cause versus proximate cause.
Let’s use the same example given above where the distracted driver was looking at his phone, ran a red light and crashed into another car causing that person injuries. But what if the plaintiff’s car then smashes into a light pole causing it to fall over into a building. The building then catches fire and causes the neighboring building to catch fire.
The question becomes, “Is it fair to hold the driver that ran a red light responsible for the damages caused to both buildings?” While it’s evident that the distracted driver is the actual cause of the damages to the buildings because he was looking at his phone, was it “reasonably foreseeable” that the defendant’s breach would cause the damage? When driving distracted, it is reasonably foreseeable that you could crash into another car or building, or even run over a pedestrian, but is it reasonably foreseeable that driving distracted would cause two buildings to catch fire? Most reasonable people would say no. So the defendant would likely be held responsible for the other driver’s damage to his car, his injuries and the damage to the light pole. After that, however, most people would find that it is simply not reasonably foreseeable to expect the rest of the result would occur from driving distracted.
Actual cause and proximate cause work together as follows: actual cause or factual cause follow the chain of events that led to the damage. Proximate causation, however, follows the chain and at some point determines whether it was foreseeable that this would happen. If not foreseeable, proximate causation breaks the causation in fact chain and holds that it is simply unfair to hold the defendant responsible for all the unforeseeable outcomes from his breach. To prevail on a personal injury claim, you need to establish both actual and proximate cause.
The final element in a negligence claim is proving that the plaintiff incurred actual, specific damages from the incident. Injured parties have the opportunity to file lawsuits with the intent to recover for damages such as personal injuries, pain and suffering, medical bills and lost wages. In the absence of any actual damages, there is no reason for a plaintiff to pursue a claim.
Have You Been Injured In A Texas Accident?
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At Parker Law Firm, our experienced personal injury lawyers believe people matter. We are committed to our clients, not case numbers, and we believe in the power of the civil justice system. With years spent both representing accident victims and participating in the state legislative process, our founder, Brad Parker, has developed a deep understanding of the law and gained unique experience that helps him get results for his clients.