Prima facie negligence is when a person or entity fails to use the care that a reasonably prudent and careful person or entity would use under similar circumstances.1
The term can also refer to the scenario where a party fails to take some act when there is a legal duty to act (for example, a grocery store failing to clean up spilled water on its floor).
Note that “prima facie” is a Latin phrase that means:
- “at first sight,” or
- “at first appearance.”
Prima facie negligence most often arises in the context of personal injury cases.
Here, an injury victim must prove that another person or entity negligently caused his or her injuries. If successful, you can often receive compensation for your losses (like medical expenses).
A prima facie case of negligence can occur in such cases as:
1. How do you prove prima facie negligence?
In a civil action involving prima facie negligence, you have to prove the following:
- the defendant (or negligent person) owed you a legal duty of care,
- the defendant breached that duty,
- the defendant’s breach of duty caused you to suffer an injury2, and
- you suffered a verifiable injury that can be supported by such things as medical bills and/or pain and suffering.3
With regards to the existence of a legal duty, this duty is often imposed by way of:
- a statute,
- prior court rulings, and/or
- a general obligation for a person to act as a reasonable person (for example, a driver to drive in a reasonable manner).
2. How do you prove that someone breached a duty of care?
In a prima facie case, you can usually prove a breach by showing:
- the appropriate level of care that a defendant was expected to follow, and
- how the defendant’s actions fell short of this duty.
Some courts will determine a breach by relying on a specific formula known as the Hand Formula.4
The Hand Formula is B<PL, where:
- B = the burden of precautions,
- P=probability of loss, and
- L=gravity of personal loss.5
According to this formula, if the burden of taking precautions is less than the probability of injury multiplied by the gravity of personal loss, then the party with the burden of taking precautions has breached his/her duty of care.6
3. Who has the burden of proof in prima facie negligence cases?
The injury victim bears the burden of proving that the defendant or another party was prima facie negligent.
In most negligence cases, you have to prove your case by a preponderance of the evidence.
A “preponderance of the evidence” means there is sufficient evidence to show that a fact is more likely true than not true.7
Most states say that “more likely” means that it is more than 50 percent likely that a fact is true.
Common examples of prima facie evidence that you can use to meet this burden includes:
- Police reports,
- Pictures of an accident scene,
- Pictures of any property damage,
- Medical records,
- Pictures of the plaintiff’s injuries, and
- Witness statements.
If you were injured in an accident, you should consult with a law firm or personal injury attorney to learn:
- what standard of care applies to your case, and
- what evidence can best show that a defendant breached that level of care.
4. What is negligence per se?
A person is considered to be negligent per se if he or she causes an injury after breaking a law.
Negligent per se means that the person who broke the law is presumed negligent.
If a person is deemed negligent per se in a legal action, the injured party must still prove that:
- the injury was caused by the defendant’s actions, and
- the injury resulted in verifiable damages.
5. What does “strictly liable” mean?
“Strict liability” refers to the legal concept where a defendant is held liable for some injury even though he or she was not negligent.8
The concept is often used in product liability cases where the defendant manufactured, distributed, or sold a defective product that caused some injury.
The doctrine is founded on the principal that when a maker of goods presents the goods to the public, the maker represents that they are suitable for their intended use.9
- Black’s Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition – “Negligence.”
- Note that causation usually requires an injury party to show that the defendant was the actual and proximate cause of an accident.
- See, for example, University of Southern California v. Superior Court (2018) 30 Cal.App.5th 429; Regents of University of California v. Superior Court (2018) 4 Cal.5th 607; and, Frausto v. Dept. of California Highway Patrol (2020) 53 Cal.App.5th 973.
- United States v. Carroll Towing, 159 F.2d 169 (2d Cir. 1947).
- See same.
- See same.
- Black’s Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition – “Preponderance of the Evidence.” See Andrus v. Texas, 140 S. Ct. 1875 (2020).
- Black’s Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition – “Strict liability.”
- See same.