In the legal sense, “negligence” is the word used to describe any careless behavior that causes or contributes to an accident. As an example, if a person failed to stop at a red light and hit your car while going through an intersection, that person was probably negligent.

To prove that someone was negligent and win your lawsuit, you must generally be able to prove five elements:

  • Duty: This element is often phrased in the question, “Did the defendant owe a duty to the plaintiff?” Duty arises in many forms. For example, the owner of a store owes a duty to customers to keep the premises reasonably safe to prevent injuries. For car accidents, drivers on the road have a duty to all the other drivers on the road to drive safely.
  • Breach of Duty: After defining the duty, a determination must be made as to whether or not the defendant breached their duty to the plaintiff. To prove this element, you must show that the defendant failed to act as a reasonable person would have acted under the circumstances.
  • Cause in Fact: This is commonly called the “but-for” test. If you can show that, but for the defendant’s actions, the plaintiff would not have been injured, then you have satisfied this element. For example, but for the defendant’s drunk driving, the pedestrian would not have been injured.
  • Proximate Cause: This relates to the proximity of the defendant’s actions to the harms at issue in the lawsuit. The injury must flow directly from the proximate cause and there may be more than one proximate cause. For example, if the defendant hit and injured a pedestrian while driving, and then at the hospital, the injured person called his grandma to tell her about his broken leg, and the grandma suffered a stroke, this may be outside the proximate cause of the defendant’s actions. This element has an air of “fairness” around it and often asks whether it is fair to attribute the injury to the defendant’s actions.
  • Damages: You must be able to show damages to prevail in your lawsuit. In a personal injury case, damages often include medical bills, lost income, pain and suffering, and damages that may be suffered in the future.

In most situations involving accidents, a cause of action (lawsuit) for negligence is the most common scenario. If you can prove all of the above elements, you have a chance of succeeding in your claim.