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Do You Have the Makings for a Personal Injury Action? Negligence Explained

Posted by attorney Mark Campanella

For anyone who’s been injured or killed through the fault of another, regardless of whether it’s through a motor vehicle accident, a slip and fall, a worksite accident or some other fact pattern, there is almost invariably a question that ultimately gets asked: do I have ground to sue? In the world of litigation, the facts relating to your particular circumstances are paramount to not only the merits of your claim, but also the eventual likelihood of success.

As a general proposition, in order to hold someone liable for injuries that you’ve suffered, the law requires you to demonstrate that the party who injured you was negligent. When I say the word negligent, I mean it strictly in the legal sense; now is not the time to turn to Webster’s for a simple definition to see if you have a potential case as that standard probably won’t pass the muster test. In the law, when one speaks about negligence, there are certain elements that must be satisfied to sustain an action against another. Unless you meet those elements, your case will not survive, even if your injuries are horrific.

The four elements that must be satisfied in order to maintain a negligence cause of action are: (1) demonstrate a Duty of Care; (2) demonstrate that there was a Breach of that duty of care; (3) demonstrate that the breach was the Proximate Cause of your injury; and (4) demonstrate that you suffered an actual Injury from the breach. I’ll explain each element in turn.

The duty of care that you owe to another depends entirely on circumstances. At its most fundamental and everyday level, people owe each other a duty to act reasonably to prevent injury to one another. This could include conduct like stopping at a red light or salting an icy sidewalk in front of your store. This duty is owed whether or not you know the other individual, so no prior relationship is necessary.

Negligence as a cause of action is not limited to personal injury cases, but is generally applicable whenever you’ve been damaged by the actions of another, whether in your business, professional or personal relationships. While this article is specifically geared toward personal injury actions, I raise this point for one very important reason. Different and special duties of care may apply to your particular circumstances. Even though the common law allows for the application of reasonableness as a general standard, the law has evolved in such a way that case law, statute and even industry have introduced heightened or differing standards of care that must be observed. While this article may serve as a rudimentary primer into the inner workings of a negligence action, it is no substitute for competent legal counsel to assess the specifics of your case.

Once you determine whether a duty of care was owed, you must then demonstrate that there was a breach of that duty. Showing that one has breached a duty of care is tantamount to proving that he or she has failed to meet the standard for which they were responsible. While that may sound like an easy enough proposition from an outsiders point of view, it often times isn’t. Questions of fact concerning what happened in the underlying accident often cloud any hard or fast determination about liability. While case law and statute sometimes are enough to automatically establish a breach of conduct, there are other times when the court simply doesn’t have authority to decide; under those circumstances, it will be left for a jury to determine.

Assuming you can demonstrate that the liable party not only had a duty of care but also breached it, it’s then incumbent on you to demonstrate that his or her actions proximately caused your injuries. In order to demonstrate proximate cause, one must show that the injury suffered would not have occurred but-for the actions of the other party.

While you might think that if someone breached a duty of care that you’d automatically be able to prove proximate cause, you’d be wrong. Many negligence cases are made or broken by one’s ability to demonstrate proximate cause. Although it’s counterintuitive, evaluations of proximate cause often call into question issues like did the injured party assume a risk that in fact caused his injuries or did his actions somehow contribute to or worsen his injuries.

When all is said and done, even if you can prove the breach of a duty that proximately caused your injury, the liability of another is ultimately irrelevant if you can’t satisfy the final element, namely that of damages. Unless you can show that you have a definite injury or harm, the rest is irrelevant, and your case will be dismissed. The bottom line, if it isn’t already obvious, is that unless you’ve suffered a compensable harm, your case may not make it very far.

That said, I offer readers this caveat. In New York, even if you’ve been injured as the result of a motor vehicle accident, your injuries must meet a certain threshold level known as the serious injury benchmark for you to successfully maintain an action. The New York legislature many years ago instituted changes to the law to ensure that no fault insurance coverage took care of the needs of the vast majority of those injured in car accidents. The state’s intention was to lighten the load on court dockets while giving only those “seriously" injured their day in court. Depending on the nature of your injuries, you may or may not automatically qualify under the serious injury definitions set forth by the state. Even if your injuries can’t be immediately pigeon holed into one of those definitions, your case may still have merit. Talk to someone who understands the law about your particular injuries!

While it’s my sincere hope that no reader ever goes through an experience that would make you question whether you have grounds for a civil action of this sort, make sure to protect your interests if it does happen. The world of litigation, and in particular negligence suits, can be a treacherous arena to the uninformed, so you need to understand your rights. Even if you’re not sure about the merits of your potential action, it’s always best to consult with counsel to make sure you know how you can proceed, one way or the other.

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