Negligence is a legal term of art that appears in all sorts of different legal scenarios: auto accidents, slip & falls, train accidents, child abuse or neglect, and even sometimes in homicide cases. Just what does it mean when someone is being negligent, or is guilty of negligence?

Negligence is considered any conduct that falls below the recognized standard of behavior established by law for the protection of others against unreasonable risks of harm. I've heard the explanation that a negligent person should have known better. (Knowing better and STILL acting in the same manner would most likely constituted recklessness.)

Legally speaking, a person has acted negligently if he or she has departed from the conduct expected of a reasonably prudent person acting under the same or similar circumstances. The clearest example to explain this standard is that of malpractice cases. In order to succeed, the plaintiff must prove that the doctor deviated from the standard practice of other doctors in the same or similar field, when faced with the same or similar circumstances. A reasonably prudent person is akin to a typically vigilant person, not hyper risk averse, but also not careless, a run of the mill risk assessor.

To establish negligence, a plaintiff (the person injured) must be able to prove or demonstrate in court that the defendant (the person being sued):

  • owed a duty to the plaintiff,
  • the defendant breached that duty by failing to conform to the required standard of conduct,
  • the defendant’s negligent conduct was the cause of the harm to the plaintiff, and
  • the plaintiff was, in fact, harmed or injured.

Of all of the elements, demonstrating that the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff is probably the most difficult initial step. Generally speaking, unless there is some sort of heightened relationship, such as with a patient and a doctor, people do not generally owe each other a duty, apart from perhaps leaving each other alone.

Relationships which invoke heightened duties include those such as landlord-tenant, landowner-guest, store-customer, parent-child, hotel-guest, ship-passenger, etc. Not surprisingly, these are the typical relationships where lawsuits are alleged, due to a breach (or deviation from) the standard of care required according to the nature of the situation.

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