You probably see the word “negligence” on lawyer billboards, bus stop signs, TV advertisements, and elsewhere, but for the layperson, it can be difficult to say what exactly the word negligence means. You might think of carelessness, or simply taking a foolish action, and those can certainly be part of a negligence suit. But when it comes down to what specifically a plaintiff is going to have to prove by a preponderance of evidence in order to obtain a negligence settlement or jury award in court, the legal framework for proving negligence is more complex.

There are four main points, or “elements,” that a plaintiff must prove in a negligence action: 1) that a defendant owed a legal duty to the plaintiff to conduct itself in a certain manner; 2) the defendant breached that duty by failing to conform its conduct to the legal standard; 3) the defendant’s breach was the actual and legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries; and 4) the plaintiff suffered damages (injury) as a result. We’ll walk through each of these four elements in turn.

How Do I Know if a Defendant Has a Duty, and What is That Duty?

“Duty” may sound like a very official word, suggesting we would only have a duty if we officially pledged ourselves to carry out that duty, but this is not the case. Whether or not a duty exists is based on the relationship between the defendant and the plaintiff. There are special duties to protect plaintiffs in some circumstances, such as where a hotel admits a guest, or a daycare takes care of a child. Property owners have duties to protect people who come onto their land from dangers on the land (e.g. icy steps), and the extent of this duty will often be based on the status of the property owner, for example a retailer or government office, and whether the plaintiff was an invited guest or a trespasser. In general, we all have a duty to conform our conduct such that it does not present an unreasonable risk to other people who might be injured by our actions, such as by texting while driving and not watching the road.

When Does a Defendant Breach Its Duty?

Simply put, a defendant breaches its duties when it fails to live up to the standard set forth by its legal duty to the plaintiff. Thus, if an amusement park has a duty to inspect its rides to make sure they are in safe working order, and an employee fails to inspect a ride that turns out to be faulty and dangerous to customers, then the amusement park will have breached its duty to the customers. Likewise, an individual who burns garbage in his backyard without taking proper safety precautions and allows the fire to burn out of control, injuring his next door neighbor, will have breached his duty to his neighbor to not act in a manner that is unreasonably risky to his neighbor.

What Must I Prove With Regard to Causation?

After showing that the defendant had a duty to the plaintiff and breached this duty, the next step for a plaintiff will be to show that this breach caused injury to the plaintiff. In some cases, showing this causation will be very clear (e.g. a careless motorcyclist who plows into a group of people), while in other cases proving causation will require much effort on the part of attorneys and experts (e.g. proving that a chemical company’s pollutants caused increased rates of cancer in a nearby town). A plaintiff must show both actual causation and legal causation. Actual causation is simply showing that the defendant’s actions were the cause of plaintiff’s injuries, or, in other words, if the defendant had not acted, the plaintiff would not be injured. Legal causation, or “proximate cause,” is a related concept which says that the plaintiff’s injuries must have been a foreseeable outcome of the defendant’s actions. In most negligence cases, this issue does not prevent recovery, but where it arises, a good personal injury attorney will put your best case forward to prove proximate causation.

How Much in Damages am I Entitled To?

Proving damages is an essential part of recovering in a negligence case, and in many cases can be the most crucial aspect of the proceedings. You as the plaintiff are entitled to be “made whole” for your injuries, and this includes recovering for past and future medical costs (including in-home care and rehabilitation), lost wages and reduced income potential, past and future pain and suffering, and punitive damages in some rare cases. Showing past medical costs and lost wages can be a straightforward exercise, but calculating the cost of future medical care and lost wages over a lifetime, and putting an adequate number on the emotional cost of the pain and suffering you have endured, can be much more challenging. An experienced and seasoned personal injury lawyer, however, will work with you, your doctors, and experts to formulate the maximum compensation you are entitled to, and put forth a compelling case for those damages to a judge and jury.

Work with Experienced New Jersey Negligence Attorneys

If you’ve been injured due to the negligent actions of another, the law is on your side in providing a pathway to compensation for your medical care costs, lost income, pain and suffering, and other damages. Work with experienced New Jersey negligence attorneys who will guide you every step of the way in proving your negligence claim and getting the compensation you deserve. In Passaic County and surrounding areas, call De Frank, McCluskey & Kopp in Wayne Township at 1-844-465-4487.

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