Determining Liability & Negligence in Personal Injury Claims
In law, liability is a broad term that is relevant to almost every type of duty, obligation, debt, responsibility, or hazard arising by way of contract, tort, or statute. Basically, if you’re doing business with someone in almost any form, liability can be a factor. In personal injury claims, you are often required to establish liability.
If, for example, you have suffered a work injury and wish to make a claim, you must first determine who is liable for your accident: is it the foreman, the company that made the equipment you were using at the time, or a third party?
Similarly, if you were harmed while using a defective product, you must determine who is liable for your injury before you can file a claim: was the product defective when it arrived at you, or did you accidentally damage it while using it or used it in a manner that it was not intended for? If so, then was the damage the result of a poor product design, or was there some error in its manufacturing? Answering these questions will help determine if someone was negligent in their duty toward you, thus establishing who should be held liable for your damages.
What Is Negligence?
The concept of liability is closely related to that of negligence. From a legal point of view, negligence is a failure to exercise the expected care toward you. In the above examples, if you suffer harm because a product malfunctioned because it was somehow dangerous or defective, the manufacturer may be held liable if you can prove they were negligent.
Negligence is a civil tort liability. It means that you can be sued for damages that resulted from your actions. Negligence is different than criminal law in that it involves civil lawsuits rather than criminal prosecutions. Civil laws allow people to get compensation for harms caused by other people.
To prove negligence, you must show that:
- The defendant owed you a duty of care.
- The defendant breached that duty.
- That breach caused your damages.
Staying with the current example, a product manufacturer has a duty of care toward their customers. By putting a poorly designed product on the market, they breached that duty, and if that product caused you harm, they may be liable for paying you financial damages.
Does the Defendant Owe You a Duty of Care?
A duty of care arises when the law recognizes a relationship between the defendant and the plaintiff requiring the defendant to act in a certain manner, often with a standard of care, toward the plaintiff. Examples include the duty owed by health care professionals to their patients, teachers to students, event organizers to participants, drivers to fellow drivers, etc.
To determine whether a particular defendant owes you a duty of care, you must consider another factor—that of risk:
- What risks are reasonably foreseeable?
- How likely is it that those risks will occur?
Risks are reasonably foreseeable if they are generally associated with the type of conduct that causes harm. For example, if a defendant negligently leaves an open bottle of rat poison unattended in a room where children are present, then the risk of harm from a child drinking it accidentally is reasonably foreseeable.
In contrast, risks are not reasonably foreseeable if they are so unusual or infrequent that it would be unfair to impose a duty upon the defendant to prevent them. For example, if a gas station customer pries a pump open, throws a lit match inside, and causes an explosion, then the gas station owner is unlikely to be held responsible because it is highly unlikely that such an event would ever occur.
In determining whether a risk is reasonably foreseeable, courts look to the facts and circumstances surrounding the incident. Courts also consider the likelihood of injury, the magnitude of the burden on the defendant to guard against the injury, the consequences of placing this burden on the defendant, and more.
Did the Defendant Breach Their Duty of Care?
Once a court determines that a risk is reasonably foreseeable and that the defendant has a duty to protect against that risk, the next question is whether the defendant breached their duty of care.
A person breaches their duty by failing to act as a reasonable person would under similar circumstances. In general, a defendant breaches their duty of care by failing to exercise ordinary care. Ordinary care means that degree of care that any reasonably careful person would observe and follow under like circumstances. The standard of care varies depending on the nature of the activity involved. If the activity involves a high degree of danger, then the standard of care is higher than for activities involving low degrees of danger.
For example, if a driver were driving at night without headlights, then the driver would be negligent for failing to use ordinary care. However, if the same driver were driving during daylight hours, then the driver would only be negligent if they failed to drive safely within the speed limit.
Did the Breach Cause Your Damages?
If it was not the defendant’s actions that actually caused your injuries, then the defendant can’t be held liable for damages. To recover damages, you must prove that the defendant’s breach of duty was the actual cause of your injuries. Actual causation requires proof that the plaintiff would not have suffered harm if not for the defendant’s negligence.
If a defendant’s negligence was not the actual cause of your damages, then the defendant can still be liable for your losses if the defendant’s acts combined with other independent forces to produce your damages. Such independent forces may include intervening causes, superseding causes, new natural conditions, or the failure of a third party to perform a legal duty.
Intervening causes are those events that occur after the original defendant’s negligence occurs. An intervening cause breaks the chain of legal responsibility between the person originally responsible for the injury and the injured party. For example, suppose you trip over a rock while in a friend’s garden. Your friend might be held responsible for your injuries, as they have a duty of care toward their visitors in keeping them reasonably safe on the premises they invite them to.
Superseding causes are those events that happen after the original defendant’s negligence occurs and that prevent the original defendant from being held liable for the plaintiff’s injury. In the previous example, if a third party had come along and knocked down the rock moments before you tripped on it, thus causing you to trip over it, then the landowner might not be liable for your injuries.
This is the main difference between intervening and superseding causes: an intervening cause does not relieve the original defendant of liability, whereas a superseding cause usually does—at least in part.
New Natural Conditions
New natural conditions are those things that change after the original defendant’s negligence occurs and that increase the likelihood of injury. For example, if someone walks across a busy street and is struck by a vehicle because of a pothole, they may be able to sue the city for failing to maintain its streets properly. If the city had been aware of the dangers posed by cars speeding around the pothole on that stretch of the road, then the city should have taken steps to reduce this risk. Therefore, the liable party might be the city rather than the car driver.
The Failure of a Third Party to Perform a Legal Duty
The failure of a third party to perform a legal duty is when a third party fails to do something they were supposed to do. For example, suppose that a construction company hired by the city builds a defective bridge even though the city had required the construction company to build the bridge according to certain specifications. If the construction company fails to follow these specifications, then it is the construction company rather than the city that may be liable for any resulting damage to the public.
Negligence and Intent
Colorado law recognizes that a person can be negligent without intending to harm another person. Negligence requires only that the person fails to act the way a reasonable person would act under similar circumstances.
For example, suppose you are driving your commercial vehicle at night on a highway and swerve off the road. This action is negligent because you did not act as a reasonable person in the same situation would have acted. On the other hand, if you intentionally swerved off the road to avoid hitting a deer, then you would not be negligent.
Other Kinds of Negligent: Negligent Entrustment
Negligent entrustment occurs when one person gives his property to another knowing that the other will use the property in a way that creates an unreasonable risk of harm to others. For example, suppose a friend asks you to drive her car to work every day. She knows that you are inexperienced at driving and likely to cause an accident. In such a case, in the event of an accident, she could be sued for negligently entrusting you with her car even if she is not in the area at the time of the accident.
Contact Legal Help in Colorado
Personal injury cases often hinge on proving the defendant’s negligence, thus establishing their liability. From the above, it becomes clear that this is often a complex issue. At a time when you should be focusing on recovering from your injury, the last thing you need is stressing over complicated legal issues such as these.
Here at Help in Colorado, we understand the anguish and financial pressure involved with personal injury cases and remain committed to helping all victims assert their rights. That is why we work on the basis of a contingency fee arrangement, meaning that you won’t have to pay us anything before you receive your compensation payment.