Injury Law Glossary

What is the Legal Definition of Negligence

In the legal system, "negligence" has a very specific definition

In the legal system, "negligence" has a very specific definition. In simple terms, it means that a person or company was not being as careful as they ought to have been, which resulted in an injury or accident.

What is Negligence?

Negligence is often the cause of personal injury cases. For example, a driver that rear-ended the car in front of them due to following too closely could be accused of negligence. Many accidents that could be summed up as ‘a person not paying attention when they should be’ fall into this category.

There are several factors that need to be taken into account when considering if someone was negligent. They include:

Whether the person causing the injury had a responsibility towards the person who got hurt.

  • Whether the person causing the injury acted in a way that violated that responsibility.
  • Whether the person accused of negligence actually did something that hurt the person making the accusation.
  • Whether the injury could have been reasonably foreseen.

Let's look at each of these factors individually. Keep in mind that it's the court's job to determine each of these factors, and some examples given could potentially be judged as negligent in some cases but not in others.

Was There a Responsibility?

Generally, when you get behind the wheel of a car, it's assumed that you have a responsibility to act in a way that avoids hurting other drivers or pedestrians. Even if someone jaywalks in front of you, you have a responsibility to do what you can to avoid hitting them. The fact that they broke the law doesn't mean you have the right to hurt them if you can avoid it.

On the other hand, if the driver in the car in front of you is behaving in a way you believe is dangerous, you are usually not responsible for physically stopping them. You may have a responsibility to inform authorities, but you typically would not be held responsible if that driver hit a pedestrian just because you witnessed their behavior.

Was That Responsibility Violated?

Imagine that you have a dog who is startled by strangers, and who tends to bite when startled. You might put up a fence to keep the dog away from strangers, keep your dog inside when you're not directly supervising it, and put "beware of dog" signs on your property.

If someone jumps the fence and walks into your house uninvited, the court might determine that you had a responsibility to keep your dog from strangers, but that you acted in a way that didn't violate that responsibility — that is, you posted clear warnings which the person who walked into your house disregarded.

It would be much more difficult to prove your negligence in this case, because you took multiple steps to limit the danger your dog posed to strangers.

On the other hand, if you allow the same dog to be in your unfenced yard and it attacks someone walking by on the sidewalk, it could be argued that you violated your responsibility in regards to the danger your dog posed.

Did Harm Actually Happen?

We've all seen cartoons where someone slips and falls on a banana peel. If someone tosses a banana peel on the floor and you slip on it, you may have a case for their negligence, as they did something that directly led to your injury. However, it becomes much more difficult to prove negligence if you notice the banana peel and avoid stepping on it in the first place.

The court may not decide that it was negligence if no harm actually occurred. This is partially because the very definition of negligence assumes that an injury actually happened. If no injury occurred, it can be argued that the definition of negligence isn't met.

Could the Injury Have Been Reasonably Foreseen?

Have you ever read about something in the newspaper and said, "that couldn't possibly have really happened?" Usually, in instances like this, one or more things happened that are really unlikely results. Let's get a little silly with this, just to illustrate the point.

A homeowner is away from their house at work. A leak suddenly occurs in the plumbing, causing the house to quickly flood. An ironing board falls into the quick-moving water, which heads towards the front door that was accidentally not latched tightly. The ironing board then goes flying out the door on a wave of water and causes an accident when it flies into the street in front of a car.

The homeowner may still be found guilty of negligence (if the pipes exploded due to neglect, or for not closing their door tightly). However, it would be very difficult to make the argument that the homeowner should have considered the fact that their ironing board might be transformed into a surfboard and disrupt traffic.

Negligence is Determined By the Court

It's the job of the court to determine whether or not negligence has occurred. The judge or jury will take into account the questions above, but there's no way to be 100% certain whether something is legally negligence until the court renders its decision.

However, you can increase your chances of a favorable verdict by hiring a lawyer who has experience with these cases. If you need a lawyer to assist you with a negligence case, you can find one in just three minutes on!