Negligence is the basis for most personal injury cases. It is a legal theory that the negligent actions or inactions of one party led to the injuries of another party. To prove a negligence case, the plaintiff must demonstrate the following elements:
- The defendant possessed a duty to act or not act;
- The defendant did not meet that duty;
- The defendant’s breach of duty was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury; and
- The plaintiff suffered actual damages.
Proximate cause means that the plaintiff’s injuries were a foreseeable result of the defendant’s breach of duty could cause injury. Foreseeability does not require that the defendant knew that the injury would occur. It only requires that the injuries were reasonably foreseeable as a consequence of the breach.
For example, if you drop and shatter a glass on the floor without cleaning it up, it is foreseeable that someone may come along and cut themselves on a piece of glass. However, if an individual walked into the room and suffered a heart attack upon seeing the shattered glass on the floor, there is no reasonable foreseeability for this individual’s resulting injuries. In other words, it is not foreseeable that a person would suffer a heart attack at the mere sight of shattered glass on the floor.
When determining foreseeability and probable cause, it is also necessary to consider the existence of any superseding factors along the causal chain. A superseding event is an action that occurs in between the initial act of negligence and the resulting injury. For example, Jane leaves a candle burning in her apartment while she visits a neighbor. A minor earthquake causes the candle to fall over and burn the apartment building. The earthquake is a superseding factor between Jane leaving the candle and apartment residents getting injured. Therefore, Jane may be free from any liability. Examples of superseding factors include:
- Acts of God (the earthquake);
- Criminal acts were undertaken by a third party (a trespass or burglary); and
- Intentional torts by a third party (assault, false imprisonment).
Defining a Duty
Negligence is only applicable when the defendant has some duty of care. Everyday situations create various types of duties. For example:
- A driver has a duty to abide by traffic rules;
- A pedestrian has a duty not to walk into oncoming traffic; and
- A dog owner has a duty to keep the dog under control.
Other duties are established by law, such as certain professions. Doctors and lawyers must abide by a set of standards as defined by statute. When these professionals fail to uphold their standard and an injury occurs, a court may find them negligent.
North Carolina is one of only a few states that still follow a contributory negligence standard. Under this theory, if the actions of the plaintiff contributed to the resulting injury, the plaintiff is barred from recovering any compensatory damages. Unlike other states where the plaintiff may still get partial damages, North Carolina completely bars any recovery if the plaintiff’s actions were a cause of the injury, even if the defendant also helped cause the injury. To successfully use contributory negligence as a defense to negligence, the defendant must prove that the plaintiff was at least 51 percent at fault.
Contributory negligence does not apply to children under seven years old, who are considered legally incapable of contribution. It also may not apply to individuals with cognitive impairments or diminished mental capabilities.
In most instances, it is best to consult with a personal injury lawyer in Charlotte before seeking a claim on your own.