Proving Negligence in a Personal Injury Lawsuit - accident car on the tow truck

Proving Negligence in a Personal Injury Lawsuit

Personal Injury Lawyer

Many personal injury lawsuits allege that the defendant was negligent, causing the plaintiff to suffer one or several injuries. Proving negligence requires establishing four elements: that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care, that the defendant breached that duty of care, that the plaintiff was harmed, and that the defendant’s breach caused the plaintiff’s harm. As a personal injury lawyer can explain, the plaintiff must typically introduce proof of each of these elements and convince the judge or jury that it is more likely than not that each is true. However, in some cases, the plaintiff can use an alternative method to prove the defendant’s negligence. 

Negligence Per Se

In some situations, the plaintiff can use a statute to establish the duty of care the defendant owed them. The doctrine of negligence per se permits a plaintiff to prove that the defendant’s conduct violated a statute to establish both that the defendant owed them a duty and that the defendant breached that duty. If the plaintiff proves a violation, they are entitled to a finding that the defendant was negligent as a matter of law. At trial, the plaintiff then only must prove that the defendant’s violation of the statute was the cause of their injury.

In order for negligence per se to apply, the plaintiff must show that the statute the defendant violated was designed to prevent the type of harm the plaintiff suffered, and that the plaintiff is within the class of persons the statute was designed to protect. 

For example, a driver will automatically be considered negligent if they violate a traffic law and cause an accident. There are exceptions to the doctrine of negligence per se where the statute is unclear, the defendant exercised reasonable care in attempting to comply with the statute, and the defendant’s violation of the statute caused less harm than would have resulted if the defendant had complied with the statute. 

Res Ipsa Loquitor 

The phrase “res ipsa loquitor” means “the thing speaks for itself.” Res ipsa loquitor is a doctrine that allows a plaintiff to use circumstantial evidence to prove the defendant’s negligence. It is useful when a plaintiff lacks information about how their injury was caused. The doctrine posits that there are certain types of accidents that do not occur in the absence of negligence. For example, a barrel falling out of a window and hitting someone walking down the street is an event that does not occur unless someone has been negligent in storing or securing the barrel. 

To use res ipsa loquitor, the plaintiff must show that the object that caused their injury was under the defendant’s control, and that there are no other plausible explanations for the accident. In other words, the plaintiff is showing that the only possible explanation for the accident was that the defendant was negligent. 

A plaintiff who successfully uses the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor creates a rebuttable presumption that the defendant was negligent. The jury may infer negligence simply because the accident occurred.

Thanks to Eglet Adams for their insight on methods of proving negligence.

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