How Negligence is Determined in a Personal Injury Claim

May 20, 2023

Negligence is by far the most common basis for a civil lawsuit, as it is based on one of the most fundamental concepts of our legal system: People can be held responsible for their mistakes. While some may criticize the United States for having an overly litigious culture, this simple principle of accountability has benefited us in countless ways as it incentivizes everyone to be more careful.

Determining negligence in a personal injury claim may be very simple or very complicated; it all depends on the facts of the case. However, understanding a few basic rules will give you a better idea of whether you have a claim.

The Four Elements of Negligence

To prevail in a negligence claim, a plaintiff must prove the following four elements.

  • Duty of Care: A duty of care exists when the defendant has a legal obligation to exercise reasonable caution to avoid injuring the plaintiff. In most cases, the duty of care is obvious—a driver has a duty of care to everyone around them, a doctor has a duty of care to their patients, etc. There are cases where it is not so clear, however. For example, if the plaintiff was trespassing on the defendant’s property at the time of their injury, the defendant owes the plaintiff a reduced duty of care.
  • Breach of Duty: This is the heart of most negligence cases. Having owed the plaintiff a duty of care, did the defendant breach that duty? The defendant must have exercised reasonable care, i.e., behaved as a “reasonable person” would have behaved in that situation. For example, if someone spills water on the ground in a supermarket aisle, this represents a hazard; employees exercising reasonable care in that situation would try to draw shoppers’ attention to the hazard (such as through a brightly colored sign) and promptly clean up the spill.
  • Injury: The plaintiff must have suffered some injury due to the defendant’s actions. For example, if the defendant runs a red light and almost hits the plaintiff’s car, there likely was no injury and no negligence claim. However, if the defendant smashes into the plaintiff’s car and breaks the plaintiff’s back, the plaintiff will have a strong negligence claim.
  • Causation: The plaintiff must show that the defendant's actions were both the factual cause and legal cause of their injuries. Factual cause is a simple "but for" test; if the plaintiff had not been injured but for the defendant's actions, those actions were the factual cause of the injuries. Legal cause, or "proximate cause," means the plaintiff's injuries were a foreseeable result of the defendant's actions. For example, if the defendant strikes the plaintiff's car and the plaintiff has to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance, but the ambulance is involved in a second accident on the way to the hospital and the plaintiff dies, the defendant will not be responsible for the plaintiff’s death.

Comparative Negligence

It's not always the case that only one party is to blame; sometimes, the plaintiff also behaved negligently. In some states, if the plaintiff is shown to have been slightly negligent, they are prohibited from recovering any damages. Fortunately, Colorado has a more reasonable approach, known as "modified comparative negligence."

Under Colorado law, if the defendant claims the plaintiff was also negligent, the jury will determine whether this is true and, if so, assign a percentage value to each party's level of negligence. If the plaintiff was 49% or less at fault for their injuries, they can still recover damages, but the percentage of their comparative fault will reduce the amount. For example, if the defendant rear-ends the plaintiff, but the plaintiff was missing a brake light, the jury might find the plaintiff 20% at fault for the accident. If the jury awards $10,000 in damages, the plaintiff can only collect $8,000. However, if the jury finds the plaintiff 50% or more at fault, the plaintiff can't collect anything.

Talk to a Personal Injury Expert

Negligence cases have many moving parts, each of which can drastically affect whether your claim is successful and how much money you will ultimately be able to recover. Trying to handle your case alone can affect the outcome of your case, as it is so easy to make a mistake that it can keep you from recovering anything.

A short consultation with one of our experienced personal injury attorneys will help you better understand the strengths and weaknesses of your case. They can present a comprehensive plan to help you get what you deserve. To get your case started, contact our office today.

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