What Are the Elements of Negligence?

Elements of Negligence

When you have to demonstrate that an individual or business caused you to suffer a personal injury, you must show that their actions (or inactions) amounted to negligence. Individuals or businesses have an obligation to behave with reasonable care, and failure to do so could qualify as negligence. As an injured individual, you have the right to pursue an injury claim and receive compensation for the harm you have endured because of someone else’s negligence, which plays a key role in a personal injury case. Because of the legal consequences involved, it’s crucial to understand the elements of negligence.    

In personal injury cases, plaintiffs must prove that negligence resulted in verifiable damage. This post will explain the conditions one must meet for the law to consider someone negligent.

What is negligence? Negligence occurs when an individual or entity fails to exercise reasonable care, resulting in injury or harm to others. By failing to act reasonably, they fall below the standard of care.   

Generally, negligence occurs when a person fails to meet the standard society deems reasonable under the circumstances in question.    

Black’s Law Dictionary, widely used by legal professionals and scholars to clarify various legal terms, defines negligence as “the failure to exercise the level of care that a reasonably prudent person would under similar circumstances.”   

Negligence is a foundational concept of tort law. There are four key elements in proving negligence. Failing to establish these four elements will severely harm your chances of securing compensation for your injuries.   


The legal concept of duty dictates that the defendant owes the plaintiff a legal duty of care. For example, a business owner has a duty to keep their premises safe for employees and customers, including inspecting regularly for hazards and addressing issues within a reasonable timeframe.   


This element generally relates to whether the defendant’s actions hurt the plaintiff. Given that it may be unclear who or what injured the plaintiff on the surface, proving a link between the defendant’s actions or inactions and the plaintiff’s injury is crucial to building a viable case.


If the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff but failed to fulfill that duty, that means s/he is in breach. While a breach seems simple enough, proving one can be trickier than you might think, making it all the more important to have an experienced legal professional in your corner.


This element hinges on whether the plaintiff suffered harm due to the defendant’s negligence. Defendants almost always dispute this, claiming that the plaintiff suffered no injuries or only minor ones, while the plaintiff will argue to the contrary.   

Typically, the plaintiff must suffer either bodily harm or property damage. Solely economic harm will not satisfy this element in proving negligence. Some jurisdictions recognize emotional distress as harm to the plaintiff, even if the harm lacks a physical aspect.  

Element 1: Duty of Care

First and foremost, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant owed them a duty of care. Essentially, this means that the defendant was under a legal obligation not to harm the plaintiff.    

However, several states have nuanced this standard of care through statutes for particular relationships, such as those between doctors and patients. Understanding these variations plays a crucial role in assessing liability in different contexts.  

A person usually owes a duty of reasonable care if s/he can reasonably foresee that their actions could harm others. For example, a driver owes other road users a duty of care to not text and drive, while a landlord owes tenants a duty of care to maintain safe premises.  

Personal injury cases will rarely have disputes over duty of care.   

Element 2: Breach of Duty

Next, the court must determine whether the defendant breached their duty of care by doing or not doing something an average person in similar circumstances would do. A jury might find a defendant to have breached their duty if:   

  • They knew everything the defendant knew at the time, and   
  • Would have known their actions might injure someone else, and    
  • Would have acted differently from the defendant in that situation.

The following are some examples of breach of duty:   

  • A construction company fails to properly secure scaffolding on one of its sites, causing it to collapse and injuring passersby.   
  • A doctor fails to provide proper medical care to a patient.  
  • The owner of an aggressive dog brings the dog to a public park, where the dog viciously bites a child playing nearby.   
  • A landlord fails to repair a broken stair railing in an apartment complex, leading to a tenant falling down the stairs and sustaining injuries.   
  • A driver doesn’t allow enough stopping distance when approaching an intersection and hits another vehicle that has stopped at a red light.

This standard varies across types of negligence; for example, in a medical malpractice case, the jury or judge evaluates a breach based on the actions of a competent medical professional, whereas a negligence claim against a business may involve industry standards.  

Understanding how judges or juries determine breach of duty and other elements of negligence in different scenarios is crucial for lawyers and individuals alike to navigate liability and ensure accountability for negligence.  

Element 3: Causation

When establishing causation, it helps to understand the differences between cause in fact and proximate cause. Cause pertains to demonstrating a correlation between the negligent or harmful action and the resulting injury.    

It focuses on proving that the plaintiff wouldn’t have suffered the injury without the defendant’s action or inaction. Essentially, it asks whether the defendant’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing the harm.   

Proximate cause, on the other hand, draws a direct line between the negligent act and the consequent injury.    

While cause establishes that the defendant’s action was a factual cause of the harm, proximate cause evaluates whether the injury was a foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s conduct.  

Essentially, cause addresses the actual causation, while the proximate cause is a cause that’s legally sufficient to support liability. Both concepts matter when determining liability and assessing the extent of damages in negligence cases.  

Although an injury can have many actual causes, the law doesn’t attach liability to all the actors responsible for those causes. The chances of labeling something a proximate cause increase when the cause is more direct and necessary for the injury to happen.  

For example, consider a case where a driver runs a red light and causes an accident. The cause is clear — the accident couldn’t have occurred “but for” the driver running the red light.   

However, determining the driver’s proximate cause depends on factors such as the speed of the cars and the visibility of the traffic lights, among other relevant circumstances. That’s where foreseeability comes in.  

Foreseeability plays a crucial role in establishing a proximate cause. For a defendant to be held responsible for negligence leading to harm, they must have reasonably foreseen the specific harm suffered by the plaintiff.  

In the example above, if the accident was foreseeable, given the driver’s actions, the jury or judge will likely establish a proximate cause. Similarly, if a person chooses to drive while intoxicated, they can reasonably foresee that their actions would result in a car accident and injuries.  

Element 4: Damages

Finally, if the plaintiff suffered harm from the defendant’s negligence, monetary compensation may be the only relief for their injuries.  

If a driver drives recklessly but causes no accident, you can’t pursue a personal injury claim regardless of said driver’s negligence because you didn’t suffer any compensable loss.  

Should you suffer harm from negligence, you may seek compensation for the following damages:  

  • Medical bills resulting from the injuries  
  • Pain and suffering  
  • Lost wages  
  • Emotional distress  

A seasoned car accident or personal injury lawyer can help you prove the four elements of negligence and demonstrate the extent of the damage you endured. Contact an attorney for help as soon as possible.  

Sometimes, calculating the damages it takes to make a plaintiff “whole” seems easy, while other times, it seems impossible. Juries often use their best judgment based on the available evidence to calculate and award damages.  

Additional Considerations in Negligence Claims

When you assert a legal claim for negligence as a plaintiff but also act negligently, the law refers to this as “contributory negligence” or “comparative negligence.”  

What constitutes contributory negligence? Contributory negligence refers to the plaintiff’s own negligence playing a significant role in the injury. In some jurisdictions, contributory negligence may bar the plaintiff from recovering damages.  

What constitutes comparative negligence? Comparative negligence refers to the plaintiff’s own negligence proportionately reducing the damages they can recover from a defendant.  

Many personal injury cases involve some level of comparative and contributory negligence, as defendants often argue that the plaintiff acted in a way that increased the chances of harm or brought the injuries upon themselves.  

Sometimes, the law presumes negligence under certain circumstances. This is called “negligence per se,”  legally defined as negligence established by law or arising from a statutory violation.  

If you were injured in an accident due to another individual’s negligence, you must prepare to prove your claim. By the time you file a claim, the defendant has disputed your case’s merit, whether they dispute the damages you demand or don’t believe they caused your injury.  

In this case, you’ll need to do the following to prove negligence:

Gather Evidence

Gathering critical evidence will provide sufficient proof of your injuries, their severity, and the fact that the defendant should rightfully compensate you. Providing more concrete evidence speeds up your process to the settlement table, where you can begin negotiations.  

Compile Your Medical Bills

Medical bills almost always demonstrate the severity of your injuries. While most defendants accept liability for negligence that resulted in your injuries, disputes are more often over the amount of damages you seek.   

A compilation of your medical bills eliminates the guesswork and provides much-needed evidence.  

Ask Expert Witnesses To Testify On Your Behalf

Unlike normal witness testimonies, expert witness testimonies tend to make a greater impact in civil cases. The defendant’s lawyer will likely undermine the credibility of normal witnesses.  

An expert witness, such as an accident reconstructionist, will have the know-how and reputation to refute the opposing counsel.  

Hire a Personal Injury Attorney

Unfortunately, only a handful of personal injury victims think about hiring a personal injury attorney after suffering a major injury. Some people underestimate the value of their claim, while others are afraid of losing in court.   

Either way, hiring a personal injury attorney who understands the elements of negligence is a wise course of action.  

Injured Through Negligence? Speak With Our Lawyers Today 

If you have a personal injury case, rely on Steinger, Greene & Feiner for all your case needs. Our competent and experienced team is ready to handle whatever type of personal injury case you bring to us with compassion and professionalism. We value your time, so you can count on our injury lawyers to respond quickly to your requests and inquiries. Having recovered over $2 billion for clients over the years, we remain committed to achieving justice on your behalf.  

Negligence may prove challenging to understand because it’s not a matter of mere carelessness. To successfully prove a defendant’s negligence in a personal injury claim, the plaintiff must prove the four elements of negligence: duty, breach, causation, and damages.  

Unfortunately, negligence cases often prove challenging to win. We can help you meet the negligence elements necessary to prove your personal injury claim, build a viable case, and seek fair compensation for your injury.  

Are you worried about the cost of legal representation? Take comfort in the fact that our team works on contingency. We don’t charge you until you accept a settlement offer.  Our firm is available 24/7 by phone or live chat. Contact us, Steinger, Greene & Feiner, at (800) 431-6841 for the legal representation you need. Schedule a consultation today to learn more about the elements of negligence.

About the Author

Michael Steinger
Michael Steinger

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MICHAEL S. STEINGER, founding partner of Steinger, Greene & Feiner, believes in representing real people, not big businesses. Since the firm’s creation in 1997, Steinger, Greene & Feiner has never represented an insurance company or large corporation, and he vows to keep this promise. Over the course of his career, Michael has handled thousands of Florida accident cases, recovering millions of dollars for his clients and earning him membership into the Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum. Staying up-to-date on the ever-evolving laws protecting injury victims and their families, Michael is an active member of the American Bar Association, the Palm Beach, and St. Lucie Bar Associations, and sits on the Auto Insurance Committee of the Florida Justice Association.