When it comes to person injury lawsuits, probably the most commonly encountered approach is a claim of negligence. Someone who has been “negligent” in the legal sense is someone who has behaved carelessly, such that someone else was injured or suffered property loss or damage.

Although the idea of “carelessness” may seem straightforward, proving negligence can be surprisingly difficult. Four elements are considered in determining negligence in court cases.

Did the Defendant Owe the Plaintiff a Duty?

The notion of a duty hinges on the specifics of the situation in which the claimed negligence took place and on the expectations of what constitutes responsible behavior in those circumstances. A business, for example, typically has a duty to keep any publicly accessible area free from hazards, or at least as free from hazards as is generally accepted in that line of business. Any driver using public roadways has a duty to act in a way that keeps the roadways safe.

Did the Defendant Breach Their Duty to the Plaintiff?

If a duty has been established, a negligence case must then prove that the defendant did not take reasonable care in meeting their duty. In other words, if the expectation is that drivers will take reasonable care and observe traffic laws, then proving that the defendant was driving considerably faster than the speed limit may serve as a proof of breach.


The breach must be shown to have caused whatever damages are involved, and there are two elements of this. First, a case must show “causation in fact.” Here, you are making the argument that “but for” the defendant’s action (or failure to act), the damages would not have been incurred. This may or may not be easy to prove, but there’s also an additional element: “proximate causation.” This is the tricky part: only if the defendant could have reasonably foreseen that harm would be caused. If there’s no way they could have known you’d get hurt, they weren’t legally negligent.

Were There Damages?

For better or worse, negligence is a “no harm, no foul” kind of situation. You have to show that you suffered legally recognizable damages in order to prevail as the plaintiff in a negligence case. If someone drove through the front of your house, it will be a fairly straightforward matter to show clear damages. It’s unlikely, on the other hand, that being in fear for your life will result in a large cash award.

Don’t Go It Alone

Though all of the above elements may be clearly established in your mind when considering taking action after suffering damages, proving these elements in court can be a complex matter. Experience in handling counterarguments is essential. You want legal counsel even if the case seems completely incontrovertible, because those sure-thing sorts of negligence cases can be—and often are—found for the defendant.