Written by attorney Sarah Rose Wolk

The Basics of Law: Negligence

One of the first things law students learn is that the law provides very specific definitions of words and those definitions are applied to specific fact situations to determine whether a defendant is guilty or held liable. Frequently, commonly used English words will be tied to legal definitions that are only ever known to lawyers, judges, and juries. One of those words: Negligence. Although people use the word generally to describe a failure to exercise a reasonable level of care and prudency, the law has broken the definition down further to assist in the dissection of the intersection of law and facts in particular cases, which are being used to determine the outcome of a case. To hold someone liable for negligence under the eyes of the law, you must meet four criteria: a duty, a breach, causation, and damages.


First, you must show that the defendant owed a duty or care to plaintiff to engage in, or refrain from engaging in, the specific behavior at issue. Generally speaking, people do not automatically owe a duty of care to others. And if you did not owe a duty of care to plaintiff, you cannot be held liable for negligence.

This changes when you create some sort of relationship with the plaintiff that requires you to act a certain way. If you promise you will do something, you must then do it. If you are in a fiduciary relationship with plaintiff, such as acting as his doctor or therapist, you must then act with a heightened level of care.


Breach is simple. If you owed a duty of care to plaintiff, did you provide it? If not, you breached. If you did not breach a duty of care, you are not liable for negligence.


If you breached a duty of care, did it cause the harm you are claiming? If so, the causation prong of the negligence factors is met. However, it is not always a simple answer, especially when you have multiple factors that did or could have caused the plaintiff’s harm.


Even if you have apodictic evidence of an owed duty, a breach of that duty, and causation, you cannot succeed on a negligence claim unless you can show actual damages. This means you suffered some sort of quantifiable harm. If you are hit by a car but miraculously did not sustain any injuries (physical, emotional, monetary, etc.), then you have no damages and are entitled to no recovery regardless of any wrongdoing by the defendant.

Although this four-pronged test is simplified above, negligence is a classic and basic example of how the law provides specific definitions for words to provide some assurance that a defendant’s fate does not depend on a particular judge’s or jury’s understanding of a word.

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