Definition of negligence: What is it, and when does it apply?

Negligence is a complex term, and an incident that occurs that seems to be a clear-cut case of negligence may not be ultimately be seen as negligence at all. Negligence requires the injured party to prove wrongdoing, and that can be a very tricky thing, especially if a case goes to trial, and you will want to work with an experienced personal injury lawyer.

By definition, according to Cornell Law School, negligence is defined as:

A failure to behave with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances.  The behavior usually consists of actions, but can also consist of omissions when there is some duty to act (e.g., a duty to help victims of one’s previous conduct).

So, what does this mean in layman’s terms? If you were to visit an establishment and they had just washed the floors and had failed to put out “slippery when wet” signs and you slipped and fell, negligence would be fairly clear. If, however, the signs were out, you walked there anyway and fell, the issue of negligence would be a little murkier.

Negligence and reasonable care

Negligence is generally considered a factor when a potentially dangerous situation is in place and nothing is done to prevent an injury. Negligence can occur on a job site if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has specific demands for safety that a company has failed to act on, such as guard rails on a piece of machinery, equipment that is not up to safety standards or handrails aren’t present on steps. Medical negligence also falls into this category, because patients seek the help of their medical professionals when they are in a vulnerable state, and they expect correct diagnoses or surgical outcomes without complications caused by careless actions.

A case of negligence

In 2006, an Ohio woman was paralyzed after an epidural abscess went unnoticed by doctors, who considered doing a spinal tap – which likely would have revealed the woman’s condition – but ultimately didn’t. They did perform blood tests, but discharged her without seeing the results. Within three days she was suffering from partial paralysis.

In 2013, she was eventually awarded $2.6 million in compensation due to medical negligence.

Negligence, in a nutshell

There are certain elements required to prove negligence, including:

  • The legal duty the defendant owed the plaintiff (such as an employer, a place of business or a medical professional).
  • The defendant’s breach of that duty (such as failure to have safety features in place).
  • Whether or not the plaintiff suffered an injury.
  • Proof that the breach of duty was the cause of the injury.

In order to determine if there has been a breach of duty, courts will base decisions on what is called the Hand Formula, coined by Judge Learned Hand in 1947 after a barge that had been secured improperly drifted away, damaging several other nearby boats.

If negligence is determined, the person who is deemed responsible for having the duty to protect the plaintiff will assume liability.


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