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Overview of Duty of Care, Standard of Care, Damages and Causation

Negligence, is the basis of personal injury claims and lawsuits.  In order to successfully prove a claim in negligence, the person commencing the lawsuit (the plaintiff) must prove four elements of negligence.  The four requirements of negligence are as follows:

  1. The defendant must owe a duty of care;
  2. The defendant must have breached the standard of care;
  3. The plaintiff must have suffered an injury and damage; and
  4. The breach in the standard of care must have caused the injury and damage.

Each and every requirement listed above must be proven in order to successfully prove a claim of negligence.

Duty of Care
A defendant owes a duty of care, when it is “reasonably foreseeable” that the defendant’s acts or omissions could cause harm to the plaintiff.  A duty of care arises when a relationship between the two parties is recognized by law and, as a result of the relationship, one party has a legal obligation towards the other party.  Examples of circumstances in which a duty of care exists include, but are not limited to:

  • A healthcare provider owes a duty of care to a patient;
  • Drivers on the road owe other drivers, cyclists and pedestrians a duty of care; and
  • Owners of businesses owe a duty of care to customers who are on their premises.

Standard of Care
The plaintiff must also prove that the defendant did not exercise reasonable care in fulfilling his or her duty.  For instance, the plaintiff must show that the conduct of the healthcare provider fell below the standard of a reasonably prudent and competent health care provider with similar training and working under similar conditions.  For example, a driver speeding and driving erratically down a road, striking vehicles and pedestrians, would be negligent.
The standard of care is not one of perfection.  An individual will not be liable if they acted reasonably in the circumstances.  

Injuries and Damage
The plaintiff must have suffered an injury, damage, and loss as a result of the conduct of the defendant.  In other words, there must be a bad result.  There are instances where, despite the negligence of an individual, no injury results.  For example, an emergency room physician who improperly reads a spinal x-ray and does not see a spinal fracture increases the patient’s risk of paralysis.  However, the emergency room physician will not be held liable unless the patient becomes paralyzed.  The plaintiff cannot be successful by showing that the outcome could have been bad.  If there is no injury, the plaintiff cannot be successful in proving a claim in negligence.

The final necessary component of a successful personal injury claim is to establish that the defendant’s conduct caused the injuries, losses and damages to the plaintiff.  In other words, the plaintiff must show that if the defendant had not been negligent, the outcome would have been better.  For instance, no injury would have occurred or the injury would have been less significant.  Lawyers refer to this as causation, and this aspect of a personal injury claim is often the most complex issue and the most difficult to prove.  An example of a situation where causation exists is a when a driver hits a pedestrian in a crosswalk.  The pedestrian suffers a fractured arm.  A successful argument can be made that but for the driver hitting the pedestrian, the pedestrian would not have suffered a broken arm and would not have been hurt. 
If you have been injured in an accident and if you can prove the four elements of negligence, you will be able to successfully recover monetary compensation.  

If you are considering pursuing a civil action and want to learn more, contact one of our civil litigation lawyers here.

By Allison E. Grimsey