Proving Negligence in Accidents: What’s Involved

When accidents happen—from slip-and-fall incidents to car wrecks and other serious events—one major question needs to be answered: who is at fault? Determining fault in an accident often comes down to identifying whether someone—a person or a company—was negligent. The negligent party is held legally responsible for the damages caused in an accident.

In order to prove negligence, the injured party (or plaintiff) must prove four things to show that the accused party (the defendant) was at fault for their accident. These include:

Duty. The plaintiff first has to show that the defendant had a legal duty that should have prevented the accident. In some situations, there is a defined legal duty of care involved—for example, a doctor is expected to provide medical care to patients at a certain level of competence. In other cases, there is no pre-established relationship between plaintiff and defendant, but the defendant should have exercised the same amount of care that a “reasonable person” would be expected to exercise.

The “reasonable person” is a legal construct—and people often don’t behave reasonably or rationally. However, this standard can be used to determine fault when there is no overt fault and no defined relationship between defendant and plaintiff. For example, a person with bad eyesight who neglects to wear glasses while driving and causes an accident might be determined negligent because a “reasonable person” would be expected to wear glasses or contacts behind the wheel.

Breach of duty. Once it is determined that a duty of care exists—either a legal duty of care or a standard based on the “reasonable person” expectation—the court must decide whether or not the accused person or organization violated that duty.

Causation. Once it’s been found that the defendant owed a certain duty of care to the plaintiff and violated that duty, the plaintiff must show that it was this violation that resulted in the accident and the injury. If the defendant was proved to be negligent but that there is no causal connection between the negligence and the injury, the defendant most likely will not be held liable.

In some cases, the line between the negligence and the injury is blurry. For example, if one car rear-ends another and pushes it into an intersection where it is hit by a third car, who is more at fault for the victim’s injuries? Cases like this are more difficult to determine.

Damages. Once it’s determined that the defendant owed a duty of care, breached that duty, and that the breach caused the injury, the jury will consider what damage was caused to the plaintiff, and how much they should be paid. Damages might include lost wages, medical bills, property damage, and other costs. There may also be damages that can’t be as easily solved with money—such as emotional distress, pain and suffering, and the loss of physical ability to perform certain activities.

No-Fault Systems. In some states and countries, a “no-fault” system has been adopted that makes determination of fault at least somewhat automatic. For example, Quebec uses an extreme example of a no-fault system. There are social programs in place, such as government-funded healthcare and programs to support workers who lose wages, that pay for medical bills and other costs that arise in case of an accident. Because most costs are essentially paid for, the question of fault is usually irrelevant.

In the United States, some states have introduced no-fault elements. Each state’s system is different, but typically, personal injuries from car accidents are categorized by level of severity. Injuries below a certain level are paid for by each victim’s insurance, with no payout for pain and suffering. The traditional fault system kicks in only for more severe cases.

The requirements and systems used to determine negligence are an important part of our Duties After Loss course. The course covers key information such as determining legal liability for accidents; insurance forms and coverages for various types of insurance including auto, homeowners’, workers’ compensation, and personal umbrella policies; and types of damages awarded. The course is available in convenient online format, and meets the insurance continuing education requirements for the states of Washington, California, and Ohio.

To find out more about the course—and learn more about negligence in the context of Duties After Loss—click here.  Or, you can search our entire insurance continuing education course catalog.

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