In order to recover damages in a personal injury case in California, a plaintiff generally needs to prove three elements of negligence:
- That the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care;
- That the defendant breached such duty through negligence; and
- 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 California negligence laws, our California personal injury lawyers will address:
- 1. What is a “duty of care”?
- 2. What is the legal definition of “negligence” in California?
- 3. What are common defenses to claims of negligence?
This article is about negligence under California personal injury law.
If you are interested in criminal negligence, you may wish to review our article on “California’s Legal Definition of Criminal Negligence.”
You may also wish to see our articles on
- gross negligence laws,
- negligence “per se,”
- strict liability,
- contributory negligence, and
- intentional torts in California personal injury claims.
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 daycare 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 due care is owed — and what that duty is — depends on the circumstances.
2. What is the legal definition of “negligence” in California?
California law defines ordinary 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 in negligence cases is what a reasonably careful person would do under the same or similar circumstances if the person owed the plaintiff a duty of care. And did the defendant’s breach of legal duty cause the plaintiff’s injury?
Example: Officer Todd is a police officer who gets a call of a robbery in progress. Without activating his sirens and overhead lights, Officer Todd slams on his accelerator and runs through a 4-way stop intersection at 50 miles per hour. He strikes Debra, who is driving through the intersection and did not hear or see the patrol car coming. Debra is killed by the impact. Certainly, the officer killing Debra was not a willful act. But his arguable breach of duty led to the death – by the officer slamming the accelerator, there is foreseeability that someone like Debra could get hurt.
Debra’s family files a wrongful death action in a California court. The lawsuit alleges negligence in the driving of the police car that caused the accident. The jury finds that the officer did not act with a reasonable standard of care, and it awards Debra’s family damages of $25 million.
Often an injured party seeking to prove negligence can benefit from applying the legal principle of res ipsa loquitur. Under this doctrine, a court will presume a defendant negligent when he had exclusive control over the instruments that caused the injury.
3. What are common defenses to claims of negligence?
Defendants can raise a number of defenses in personal injury cases in order to establish that they were not negligent. Three of the most common defenses to a negligence cause of action 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 fault” law — also known as “pure comparative negligence” — a plaintiff who is partially at fault for an accident or injury may still be able to recover some amount of 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.
Example: Sandra joins a kickboxing class at 24 Hour Fitness. The gym makes her sign a liability waiver that she assumes the risk of injury and acknowledges that this can be a dangerous class and sport.
However, an inexperienced trainer is assigned to lead the class. The trainer fails to admonish the class about safety procedures and fails to supervise the participants closely. Sandra is punched by a fellow classmate and breaks her jaw.
In a fitness center injury lawsuit, Sandra may be able to recover damages (such as for medical expenses), in spite of the liability waiver.
And when defendants act with gross negligence, we can often recover damages for our clients.
For further help…
If you or someone you know has been injured by another person’s negligence, we invite you to contact our personal injury attorneys for legal advice. Our law firm practices throughout Southern California and the state, including San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and more.
- See, for example, California Civil Jury Instructions (“CACI”) 400. See also California Civil Code section 1714(a). See also: Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal.2d 108; Ladd v. County of San Mateo (1996) 12 Cal.4th 913; Coyle v. Historic Mission Inn Corp. (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 627; Regents of University of California v. Superior Court (2018) 29 Cal.App.5th 890; Ky. Fried Chicken of Cal. v. Superior Court (1997) 14 Cal.4th 814; Doe v. United States Youth Soccer Assn., Inc. (2017) 8 Cal.App.5th 1118; Staats v. Vintner’s Golf Club, LLC (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 826; Doe v. Los Angeles County Dept. of Children & Family Services (2019) 37 Cal.App.5th 675; Burns v. Neiman Marcus Group, Inc. (2009) 173 Cal.App.4th 479; Laabs v. Southern California Edison Company (2009) 175 Cal.App.4th 1260; Southern California Gas Leak Cases (2019) 7 Cal.5th 391; Carlsen v. Koivumaki (2014) 227 Cal.App.4th 879; University of Southern California v. Superior Court (2018) 30 Cal.App.5th 429; Frausto v. Dept. of California Highway Patrol (2020) 53 Cal.App.5th 973; Regents of University of California v. Superior Court (2018) 4 Cal.5th 607.
- See CACI 405. See also: Drust v. Drust (1980) 113 Cal.App.3d 1; Li v. Yellow Cab Co. (1975) 13 Cal.3d 804; Pfeifer v. John Crane, Inc. (2013) 220 Cal.App.4th 1270; Hasson v. Ford Motor Co. (1977) 19 Cal.3d 530; Bradfield v. Trans World Airlines, Inc. (1979) 88 Cal.App.3d 681; CRST, Inc. v. Superior Court (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 1255; Harb v. City of Bakersfield (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 606.
- CACI 451. Also see Coulter v. Superior Court (California Supreme Court, 1978) 21 Cal.3d 144; Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708; Allabach v. Santa Clara County Fair Assn., Inc. (1996) 46 Cal.App.4th 1007; Rosencrans v. Dover Images, Ltd. (2011) 192 Cal.App.4th 1072; Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC (2016) 4 Cal.App.5th 867; Hass v. RhodyCo Productions (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 11; Saenz v. Whitewater Voyages, Inc. (1990) 226 Cal.App.3d 758; Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296; Tunkl v. Regents of Univ. of California (1963) 60 Cal.2d 92; Blue Booth v. Santa Barbara Biplane Tours, LLC (2008) 158 Cal.App.4th 1173; City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747; Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 344; Huverserian v. Catalina Scuba Luv, Inc. (2010) 184 Cal.App.4th 1462; Grebing v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (2015) 234 Cal.App.4th 631; Jimenez v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (2015) 237 Cal.App.4th 546; Madison v. Superior Court (1988) 203 Cal.App.3d 589.