Proving Negligence in a California Personal Injury Case

In order to recover damages in a personal injury case in California, a plaintiff generally needs to prove three things:

  1. That the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care;
  2. That the defendant breached such duty through negligence; and 
  3. That the defendant's negligence was a substantial factor in causing the harm (“causation”).[1]

A person is negligent when he or she fails to act the way a reasonably careful person would in the same situation.

To help you better understand how negligence is proved in a California personal injury case, our California personal injury lawyers discuss, below:

You may also wish to see our articles on “negligence per se,” strict liability and liability for intentional torts in California.

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1. What is a "duty of care"

Under California personal injury law, people often owe a “duty of care” to others. The duty is often created by law -- for instance, teachers and day care centers have a duty to look after children who have been left in their care. Drivers have a duty to obey traffic laws so as not to create an unreasonable risk of car accidents or pedestrian knockdowns.

Whether a duty of care is owed and what that duty is depends on the circumstances.

For more detailed information, please see our article "What is a 'Duty of Care' in California Personal Injury Law?"

2. The legal definition of “negligence” in California

California law defines “negligence” as the failure to use reasonable care to prevent harm to oneself or to others.

A person is negligent if he or she:

  • Does something that a reasonably careful person would NOT do in the same situation, or
  • Fails to do something that a reasonably careful person WOULD do in the same situation. 

Thus the basic issue for a jury is what a reasonably careful person would do under the same or similar circumstances if the person owed the plaintiff a duty of care. 

3. Defenses to negligence

Defendants raise a number of defenses in personal injury cases in order to prove that they are not negligent. Three of the most common defenses to California personal injury claims are:

  • The defendant owed no duty of care to the plaintiff

Often defendants will try to claim they had no duty to act in any particular way toward the plaintiff.

But manufacturers, property owners, business owners, drivers and others often have a duty to prevent harm to others. If they breach this duty and they are negligent (or in some cases, even when they aren't), they are liable for any damages resulting from their actions.

  • The plaintiff was the one responsible for the injury (“contributory” or “comparative” negligence)

Defendants will frequently try to blame the plaintiff for causing the accident or injury.

A good California personal injury lawyer will conduct his or her own investigation to uncover the facts that prove that the defendant was responsible.

Additionally, under California's “comparative negligence” law, a plaintiff who is partially at fault for an accident or injury may still be able to recover partial damages.[2]

  • The plaintiff assumed the risk of injury (“assumption of the risk”).

Sometimes a defendant will claim that the plaintiff “assumed the risk” of injury.[3] This is particularly true in cases in which the plaintiff is engaging in activities that are inherently risky – such as gym accidents and surfing accidents.

But even when a plaintiff has signed a waiver of liability and assumption of risk agreement, defendants have a duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent injuries.

And when defendants act with gross negligence, we can often recover damages for our clients.

Injured in California? Call us for help…

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If you or someone you know has been injured by another person's negligence, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation to discuss your case.

Call us at (855) 396-0370 to talk to an experienced California personal injury lawyer today.

You don't pay us a dime until we settle or win your case.

But hurry -- the statute of limitations is running on your claim. Call us today to make sure you get the compensation you need and the justice you deserve.

Legal references:

  1. See, e.g., California Civil Jury Instructions ("CACI") 400. See also California Civil Code section 1714(a).
  2. See CACI 405.
  3. CACI 451.

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