In order to recover damages in a personal injury case in California, a plaintiff generally needs to prove three things:
- 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 discuss, below:
- 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 Neligence.”
You may also wish to see our articles on gross negligence laws, negligence “per se,” strict liability, recklessness, 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 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 due 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. 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 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 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 “comparative negligence” — 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.
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, in spite of the liability waiver.
And when defendants act with gross negligence, we can often recover damages for our clients.
If you or someone you know has been injured by another person’s negligence, we invite you to contact our personal injury attorneys for a free consultation and legal advice. Our law firm creates attorney-client relationships with people throughout the state, including San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and more.
- See, e.g., California Civil Jury Instructions (“CACI”) 400. See also California Civil Code section 1714(a).
- See CACI 405.
- CACI 451. Also see Coulter v. Superior Court (California Supreme Court, 1978) 21 Cal.3d 144.