Negligence, in a legal sense, is typically considered to be a failure to act in accordance with, or an action that is in opposition to, what a reasonable person would do. This hypothetical “reasonable person” is the basis for most claims of negligent behavior, and is typically the scale against which other people’s actions are considered. The five basic concepts behind establishing negligence in a court case are a duty of care, a breach of that duty, actual or legal cause, establishment of proximate cause, and harm resulting in damages.
The simplest understanding of negligence comes in understanding that it is basically the result of a person not behaving in a way that a reasonable person should. This is not always the same as inattention since someone can be quite attentive but still behave negligently. The five common elements of negligence are used to establish how a reasonable person should behave in a given situation, and then determine if that behavior was not followed by someone accused of being negligent.
Establishing duty of care regards determining the responsibilities of a reasonable person in a situation or role. It comes down to understanding the duty of a police officer on patrol, a factory working assembling a car, an engineer designing a building, and a barista serving hot coffee to customers. A breach of that duty is the establishment of negligent behavior by a person as he or she does not act in accordance with the duties of a reasonable person in that position. This can be both acting inappropriately and failing to act appropriately.
The actual or legal cause of a situation is involved with determining if something really caused something else. Someone can claim that an accident caused the person harm, but he or she must be able to prove actual causation to establish negligence. Proximate cause deals with how reasonable it is to predict that the causal events could occur. This deals with the theoretical distance between causes and events.
For example, a barista not properly affixing a lid onto a cup of hot coffee could reasonably be seen as the actual cause for that coffee burning a customer. The company that owned the coffee stand could also be considered reasonably responsible if it failed to train the employee in how to properly place lids on cups. On the other hand, the person who picked the beans used to make the coffee that burned the customer would not be considered to be a reasonable proximate cause of the negligence.
Finally, a person seeking redress for negligence must prove that harm did occur in order to seek damages for that harm. Someone burned by coffee must be able to show pictures of the burn and hospital or doctors bills treating the injury. All of this is used to establish how a reasonable person should have behaved and to judge whether that course of action was followed, and ultimately understand the consequences of such behavior.