Negligence is a legal concept that anyone who has been injured is likely to hear a lot about. It is central to injury law across the country. Broadly speaking, negligence is a failure to exercise reasonable care. The law likes to talk about reasonableness and pretend that it is a concept that can be described concretely. You can think of reasonable care as the care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in the same situation.
The basic idea behind negligence is that everyone should exercise reasonable care when they act, and doing that means taking into account the potential harm their actions could foreseeably cause others. Those who fail to take reasonable care, are liable for the reasonably foreseeable results of their actions. So, for example, if you fail to tie down some furniture in the back of your pick-up truck which then falls out while you’re driving down the highway and hits the driver behind you, you were negligent and responsible for the foreseeable results of your actions. And since it doesn’t take a Stephen King to imagine that driving with loose furniture could be a danger to those behind you, the damages you caused were probably foreseeable.
But often, it’s not so clear whether or not someone was negligent. In that situation, it may take a Court to determine whether a party was negligent and liable for the damage they caused. Injury lawsuits can be fought over liability, damages, or both. If the parties are arguing over whether someone was negligent, they are arguing over liability.
The thing to remember is that when you go out in the world, you are expected to behave in a reasonably prudent manner. Be careful. And watch out for everyone else too. The law may presume that people will act with reasonable care, but you’ll probably be safer if you assume the opposite.
Law holds us liable for both our intentional and negligent acts. Because intentional acts tend to be very obvious, most legal cases are more concerned with negligence. I’ve discussed it before on here, but negligence happens when a person fails to exercise “reasonable care.” But, deciding this happens after the fact and usually requires a jury. One exception to that is negligence per se.
Negligence per se translates to negligence in itself. Basically, some acts are so obviously problematic that it doesn’t matter whether or not they’re done with reasonable care. If something is negligence per se, the person who commits that act is liable for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of that action. No matter how careful they were. Basically, this refers to the violation of a statute. Specifically, this refers to the violation of a statute intended to protect the plaintiff that injures the plaintiff.
A plaintiff must establish five elements to bring a negligence per se claim: (1) that the defendant violated a particular statute; (2) that the statute was enacted to protect a specific class of persons; (3) that the plaintiff is a member of the class; (4) that the plaintiff’s injury is the kind of injury that the statute was enacted to prevent; and (5) that the statute was intended to regulated members of the defendant’s class.
If the plaintiff proves these elements, a defendant is negligent as a matter of law. But that’s just the first step. The plaintiff must still succeed in proving causation and damages to establish liability. If a plaintiff fails to do that, his claim fails as a matter of law. The defendant’s actions must have caused the alleged damages. Similarly, a claim fails as a matter of law if the plaintiff fails to establish the material elements of the claim, including damages.
What does all that mean? Basically that negligence law continues to apply. The four common elements of damages are duty, breach, causation, damages. Instead of a traditional duty analysis, we have the five factor test discussed above. But that’s only the first step – and the remaining three steps continue to apply. Because it short-circuits the duty requirement, negligence per se can be a powerful claim. But, it’s important to remember that it carries its own set of requirements and shouldn’t be reduced to just “breaking a law.”