Negligence Elements for Car Accident and Other Tort Cases
In Maryland and every other state, financial liability for auto accident injuries is determined under the tort law concept of negligence. If you want to hold someone responsible for an accident, you have to show that they committed the tort of negligence.
Four Elements of Negligence
To bring a personal injury claim on negligence, you must prove four elements:
- the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff
- the defendant breached that duty,
- plaintiff suffered actual injury or loss, and
- defendant’s breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury
The first element of negligence requires that the defendant owed some type of duty or obligation to the plaintiff under the circumstances. In auto accident cases this element is almost automatic. Whenever you get behind the wheel and drive on public roads, you owe a duty to drive safely and follow the traffic rules to avoid injuring other drivers. So all drivers must reasonably protect other drivers on the road whenever they are operating a vehicle.
The 2nd element of negligence requires a showing that the defendant breached the duty that was owed to the plaintiff. This is always the most critical element in auto accident cases. This element is almost always established by showing that the defendant violated a traffic law by failing to yield, failing to stop for a red light, etc. These Rules of the Road are outlined in Chapter 21 of the Transportation Article of the Maryland Code. Failure to obey the traffic rules is a breach of the defendant’s duty to drive safely and avoid harm to others.
The breach of duty element can be established even without a violation of any traffic laws. A defendant can breach his or her duty if they fail to operate their vehicle safely and avoid accidents that a reasonable person would avoid. This is the critical issue our attorneys face in a lawsuit involving a car accident: whether the defendant driver violated this reasonable person standard. The determination as to whether the defendant has breached this rule is usually resolved by the jury (or in smaller cases, a judge).
The 3rd element of negligence requires that the plaintiff have an actual physical injury related to what happened. If the plaintiff is not actually injured, there is no tort of negligence. For example, let’s say driver A pulls out in front of driver B. Luckily Driver B is somehow able to swerve out of the way and just barely avoid a collision with a Mack truck. Driver A clearly breached his duty so elements 1 and 2 are present. But Driver A did not get hurt so element 3 cannot be established.
Keep in mind that the plaintiff’s injuries must be physical. Emotional distress from almost getting into a deadly accident is not enough to bring a negligence claim. A plaintiff can get additional damages for emotional distress if it is related to physical pain and injuries.
The 4th and final element of negligence is causation. This requires the plaintiff to show that the physical injuries he has were actually caused by the car accident (and not some pre-existing condition). This element is often a battleground in auto accident cases, particularly those involving back and neck injuries.
Example of Four Elements of Negligence in Auto Accident Cases
Let’s take a common example to illustrate how causation defenses usually play out. Driver A rear-ends Driver B (a clear breach of duty). Driver B claims that the accident caused a herniated disc injury in his back. However, the medical evidence proves that Driver B had got the herniated disc years before the accident and it was not reaggravated. This means that Driver B’s herniated disc was not caused by Driver A’s negligent driving. There is no causation so negligence is not established.
The fact that the plaintiff’s disc injury is pre-existing does not necessarily prevent them from establishing causation. If they can show that the injury was made worse or reaggravated by the accident, then the proximate cause element of negligence would be satisfied.
Getting an Experienced Lawyer on Your Side
If you have been harmed or lost a loved one in a personal injury case, you need the best possible lawyer on your side. Do your research. Find out who the best personal injury lawyer in Maryland are and decided who you want to fight for you. If that search leads you to Miller & Zois, call us immediately at 800-885-8082. You can also get a free online consultation.