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What is Civil Negligence?

By Daphne Mallory
Updated May 16, 2024
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Civil negligence, according to many law systems, is the breach of a duty to care. Someone who is found guilty of civil negligence is found to have not acted in the way a reasonable person would in the same situation. The negligent act must result in injury or loss, and often falls under tort laws. Criminal negligence is different because the defendant is accused of intentionally acting in reckless fashion without regard to the safety of others, and as such, the offense falls under criminal codes.

When a plaintiff sues for civil negligence, he or she often has to prove four elements. He or she often must show that a duty of care existed, and that the standard of care was breached by the defendant. The plaintiff then has to show that he or she is an injured party; this can be a physical or emotional injury. A court case is often won or lost on the plaintiff's ability to prove a causal link between what the defendant did and the injury that the plaintiff suffered.

The defendant can raise various legal defenses in a civil negligence lawsuit. A common one is that the plaintiff assumed the risk of injury. For example, a plaintiff who suffered injuries while riding on the back of a motorcycle is often found to assume the risk of injury. Another legal defense is the plaintiff's negligence; a defendant may claim that the plaintiff is the cause of the negligent act. A judge may examine the issue of comparative negligence in those cases.

Comparative negligence is legal terminology for when at least two parties are liable for a negligent act. It is called comparative because a judge often assigns percentages to indicate how much each party is at fault. A plaintiff can be negligent, and often receives a reduced amount in damages to account for the percent that he or she is at fault. For example, if a judge decides the plaintiff is 40 percent at fault, then the maximum he or she can expect from the legal damages asked for is 60 percent. Local laws dictate how a judge can determine fault, and in some cases, if any fault is assigned to the plaintiff, he or she will receive no damages.

Damages awarded for civil negligence are based on what it takes to restore the plaintiff to his or her original condition. Courts often do not take into account the level of breach to determine damages. What matters is the monetary amount necessary to repair any injuries caused by the negligence.

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Discussion Comments

By Monika — On Jun 28, 2012

I've always thought the idea of the hypothetical "reasonable person" in negligence and personal injury cases to be very interesting. Because really, what is a reasonable person?

I consider myself to be a reasonable person, but, for example, I disagree with my mother about politics and religion all the time. So who is reasonable in that case? Am I, or is she? We can't both be right, of course! So I can imagine people having a lot of different opinions about a civil negligence case too!

By strawCake — On Jun 27, 2012

@sunnySkys - That's a good example! Could you imagine trying to find out all of the people who drove past you while you were changing your tire? That would be a job in and of itself!

I remember learning about negligence when I took an introductory law class in college. It was very interesting to me how judges would award negligence compensation. From what I remember, they take a lot of stuff into account, such as the dollar amount of the plaintiff's medical care. They also sometimes assign punitive damages to the defendant, which is supposed to punish them for their negligence instead of just reimbursing the victim.

By sunnySkys — On Jun 26, 2012

I think the most familiar example of a civil negligence claim is a malpractice lawsuit. A doctor most certainly has a duty of care for their patients, and if they don't perform their duties properly, they can be sued in civil court. Of course, then the plaintiff has to actually prove the doctor was negligent in order to win the lawsuit.

But as the article said, a duty of care definitely has to exist in order to sue. For example, if you get a flat tire and get stranded on the side of the road, you can't sue people who drive by and don't help you. They aren't legally obligated to stop and help, so they have no duty of care.

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