What Does it Mean When Someone is Liable for Negligence?
In general, people normally characterize a negligent person as someone who is irresponsible, careless, or who makes bad choices. Although this characterization is not wrong, it is only part of what is required legally to maintain a lawsuit for negligence. A plaintiff who sues a defendant for negligence must prove four things: a duty, a breach of that duty, and an injury caused by that breach.
First, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant had a duty to act responsibly towards him or her. In the legal world, “duties” come in all shapes and sizes, but some examples include a doctor's duty to treat their patient in a responsible and informative manner, a driver's duty to other drivers and pedestrians to follow the rules of the road, a landlord's duty to keep the premise in a safe condition for their tenant, a parent's duty to take good care of their children, a lawyer's duty to maintain the confidences of his or her client, a manufacturer's duty to make safe products for their consumers, and everyone's duty to act with conscious regard for the safety and well-being of those around us.
Once it is established that the defendant had a duty to the plaintiff, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant breached that duty by failing to act reasonably in to fulfill it. For example, a doctor who doesn't inform their patient of the dangerous risks involved in a serious surgery has breached her duty to secure her patient's informed consent to the surgery; a driver who blows a stop sign has breached his duty to follow the rules of the road for the safety of others; a landlord who fails to fix a faulty staircase has breached her duty to keep the premise in a safe condition for her tenant; depending on the circumstances, an adult who leaves a child unattended may have breached his duty to look out for those that are more vulnerable. In essence, anyone who unreasonably puts others at risk for injury potentially breaches her duty to those individuals reasonably at risk.
Even if the defendant had a duty to the plaintiff and breached that duty, the plaintiff has to prove that they sustained some kind of injury—physical, emotional, or both—to succeed on negligence claim. After all, the main purpose of the American tort law system is to compensate the victim for what he lost as a consequence of the wrongful conduct of others. We all make mistakes, but it would be unrealistic to hold everyone accountable for their misconduct whether or not an injury to society has occurred. Therefore, if no harm has been done by the defendant's misconduct, then there is no foul.
Lastly, the plaintiff must prove that it was the defendant's breached duty that specifically caused the injury. In legal terms, causation is arguably the most difficult, complicated, and confusing element out of the four because many factors come into play here. However, in simple terms, the main questions become this: Was the defendant's misconduct the cause of the plaintiff's injury, or was it something else? If there was something else involved, did the defendant's misconduct play any contributing role in causing the injury? If the answer to either of those questions is yes, and the plaintiff has proved the other three elements mentioned above, then the defendant may be found fully or partially liable for to the plaintiff for his negligent action.