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Negligence is a failure to exercise the care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in like circumstances. The area of tort law known as negligence involves harm caused by carelessness, not intentional harm. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. Common sense alone may tell who is legally liable. However, establishing or proving negligence and liability in a legal setting can be more complicated. Negligence can be based on what someone did, or on what they didn’t do. This applies to individual people as well as companies and corporations.

In most, if not all negligence cases, the burden of proof is always present. Through civil litigation, if an injured person proves that another person acted negligently to cause their injury, they can recover damages to compensate for their harm.  If a case for negligence is proven, that proof can potentially entitle the injured plaintiff to compensation for injury to their body and damages to property, mental well-being, financial status, or even intimate relationships.  However, because negligence cases are very fact driven, a general definition does not completely explain the concept of WHEN the law will require one person to compensate another for losses caused by accidental injury.  In addition to this, the law of negligence in common law is only one aspect of the law of liability. Although resulting damages must be proven in order to recover compensation in a negligence action, the nature and extent of those damages are not the primary focus of negligence cases.

Common law jurisdictions will possibly differ slightly in the exact classification of the elements of negligence, but the elements that must be established in every negligence case are specific and they are: breach, duty, causation, and damages. Negligence can be conceived of as having just three elements–conduct, causation and damages. More often, it is said to have four add punitive damages; or five (duty, breach, actual cause, proximate cause, and damages). Each scenario would be correct, depending on how much specificity someone is seeking. 

Shall We Proceed?

In the United States, The plantiff must prove each element to win his case. The defendant may request some sort of judicial resolution early on if there is a very unlikely chance that said plantiff can prove on of the elements. Doing this would prevent the case from going to a jury. The ability to resolve a negligence case without trial is very important to defendants. If the specific limits provided for by the four elements are unproven, any plaintiff could claim any defendant was responsible for any loss, and subject that person to a very costly court battle.

The elements give the defendant a chance to test a plaintiff’s accusations before trial, and thus providing a guide to the jury to decide whether the defendant is or is not liable, after the trial. Whether the case is resolved with or without trial very much depends on the particular facts of the case; and the ability of the parties to appropriately present the issues to the court. The duty and causation elements in particular, give the court the best opportunity to take the case from the jury, because they directly involve questions of policy. The court can find that regardless of any disputed facts, the case can be resolved as a matter of law from undisputed facts, because two people in the position of the plaintiff and defendant simply cannot be legally responsible to one another for negligent injury.

On appeal, the court reviewing a decision in a negligence case will analyze in terms of at least one of these elements, depending on the outcome of the case and the question on appeal. For example, if it is an appeal from a final judgment after a jury verdict, the reviewing court will look to see that the jury was properly instructed on each contested element, and that the record shows sufficient evidence for the jury’s findings.