What is Negligence?

  • By:David Bate

A standard negligence claim has four basic parts: a duty existed, there was a breach of the duty (or standard of care), the defendant caused the chain of events to occur, and the plaintiff suffered damages as a result. The parts of the negligence claim can also be represented in the form of this basic equation:

Duty + Breach + Causation + Damages = Negligence,or D + B + C + $ = N.

It looks like simple arithmetic, but each component is further divided into smaller subcategories with various exceptions and rules that may require extensive analysis. To fully illustrate some of the complexities of establishing a negligence claim, each component is further explained below:

“D” is for Duty

The basic definition of a duty is an obligation owed to others to avoid causing or creating harm. For instance, motorists have a duty to stop at stop signs, appropriately yield, drive within posted speed limits, and remain relatively undistracted (cellphone free zone).A caveat of the ‘D’ component is the type of relationship that existed between the parties at the time of the incident. For example, a physician owes the highest duty of care to his or her patient.A duty commonly refers to a defendant actively doing something, but a duty may also be created by inaction. Generally, defendants are not held liable for inaction (or nonfeasance); however, the law has determined that the nature of a relationship can change the duty owed. For example, if you see someone drowning in a river, there is no duty to save that person. However, if you see that the person drowning is your child, there is a duty to save your child. Therefore, you will likely be held liable for your inaction if you do not save your family.

“B” is for Breach

A breach of a duty is the defendant’s failure to act within a standard of care. Thus, you must establish a standard of care before you can decide if it has been breached. A common standard of care is to generally avoid putting others in harm’s way.Other common standards of care are placed on professionals such as doctors, accountants, and lawyers. For example, a doctor has breached his or her duty if they fail to properly consider a patient’s allergies when prescribing medication.

“C” is for Causation

Causation is the link that ties the accident or injury to the defendant’s conduct or inaction (nonfeasance). One of the most common tests used to decide causation is the “But-For” test. In other words, the harm or injury could not have otherwise occurred had it not been but-for the defendant acting or not acting (nonfeasance).For example, if a pedestrian fell and broke her leg after being hit by a car because the driver was on his cell phone, the plaintiff would not have a broken leg but-for the driver’s action. (According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted (texting or on cellular phone) drivers are responsible for over three-thousand deaths in 2014.)

“$” is for Money Damages

Lastly, the issue of damages must be present in order to complete your negligence equation. Commonly, damages are only considered if they are ‘actual damages;’ which may come in the form of medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, or property damage.The “N”Overall, the Negligence Equation is far more analogous to solving a complex calculus problem rather than solving simple addition. Good mathematicians are extremely familiar with every part of an equation because they understand how a slightly different set of numbers might change the entire outcome. A great law firm with experienced DC personal injury lawyers can be key because like good mathematicians, they need to know every part of the equation.


Thanks to our friends and co-contributors from Cohen & Cohen, P.C. for their added insight into negligence and personal injury practice.

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