California negligence claims have four elements that must be proven: 1) The defendant owed you a duty of care; 2) The defendant breached it; 3) This breach caused your injury; and 4) You suffered damages.1
Below each of these California negligence elements is illustrated with an example in the context of a car accident:
|1. The defendant had a duty of care towards you||While the defendant was driving, they had a duty towards all fellow motorists and pedestrians (including you) to follow traffic laws, be safe, and act like a reasonable person would under the circumstances.|
|2. The defendant breached their duty of care towards you||The defendant was speeding in violation of traffic laws and was therefore failing in their duty to drive safely and to minimize the chance of an accident.|
|3. There was causation between the defendant’s breach and your injuries||Because the defendant was speeding, they could not brake in time before rear-ending your car – resulting in you breaking an arm. Furthermore, it is reasonably foreseeable that speeding would make it difficult to avoid causing a rear-end collision.|
|4. You suffered damages||Due to your broken arm, you have medical bills, lost wages, lost future earnings, and pain and suffering.|
To help you better understand California negligence laws, our 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.”
1. What is a “duty of care”?
Under California personal injury law, people often owe a “duty of care” to others. This is the duty to act the way a reasonably careful person would in the same situation.
Duties of care are 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. For instance, doctors facing medical malpractice personal injury claims are held to a higher duty of care than average people.
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 they:
- Do something that a reasonably careful person would NOT do in the same situation, or
- Fail 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 you a duty of care. In short, did the defendant’s breach of legal duty cause your injury?
Example: Officer Todd gets a call of a robbery in progress. Without activating his sirens and overhead lights, he slams 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.
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 the elements of negligence can benefit from applying the legal principle of res ipsa loquitur. Under this doctrine, a court will presume a defendant negligent when they 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:
3.1. The defendant owed no duty of care to you
Often defendants will try to claim they had no duty to act in any particular way toward you.
Though in reality, 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, they are liable for any damages resulting from their actions.
3.2. You were the one responsible for the injury (“contributory” or “comparative” negligence)
Defendants will frequently try to blame you for causing the accident and any resulting injuries or property damage.
A good California personal injury lawyer will conduct their own investigation to uncover the facts that prove that the defendant’s actions were a substantial factor in harming you.
Additionally, under California’s “comparative fault” law — also known as “pure comparative negligence” — you may still be able to recover some amount of damages even if you are partially at fault for the accident or injury.2
3.3. You assumed the risk of injury (“assumption of the risk”).
Sometimes a defendant will claim that you “assumed the risk” of injury.3 This is particularly true in cases in which you are engaging in activities that are inherently risky – such as gym accidents and surfing accidents.
Though even when you have 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, due to the gym’s breaches of its duty of care.
- See, for example, California Civil Jury Instructions (“CACI”) 400. See also California Civil Code section 1714(a). See also: 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; 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: Li v. Yellow Cab Co. (1975) 13 Cal.3d 804; Pfeifer v. John Crane, Inc. (2013) 220 Cal.App.4th 1270; CRST, Inc. v. Superior Court (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 1255; Harb v. City of Bakersfield (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 606. See also Civ. Code 1431.2.
- CACI 451. Also see Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708; 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; 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.