“Gross Negligence” in California Personal Injury Law

“Gross negligence” is the duty of care owed in some California personal injury cases. Gross negligence is greater than ordinary negligence in California but not as serious as recklessness.

California courts generally define “gross negligence” as:

  • A lack of any care, or
  • An extreme departure from what a reasonably careful person would do in the same situation to prevent harm to oneself or to others.1

The difference between ordinary and gross negligence is especially important in two contexts:

  1. When a statute imposes liability on a defendant only for gross negligence, or
  2. When a plaintiff has signed an “assumption of the risk” agreement in which he or she waives claims for the defendant's ordinary negligence.

To help you better understand “gross negligence” in California personal injury law, our California personal injury lawyers discuss, below:

If you are interested in gross negligence in criminal law, you may wish to review our article on "California's Legal Definition of Criminal Negligence."

someone giving CPR to young man at side of road

1. When is “gross negligence” applied in California?

California law imposes a “duty of care” on people. This duty imposes an obligation to use ordinary care or skill in the management of one's property or person so as to avoid harming others. Failure to do so is negligence (referred to sometimes as “ordinary” negligence).

In some contexts, however, California law only imposes a duty of care to avoid “gross” rather than “ordinary” negligence. Two of the most common situations in which this occurs are:

  1. When a statute imposes liability only for “gross negligence” or more culpable conduct,2or
  2. When a plaintiff has agreed to “assume the risk” of ordinary negligence.3

2. The difference between “ordinary” and “gross” negligence

There is no precise definition of “gross negligence” under California law. But courts describe it variously as:

  • Very great negligence,
  • A want of even scant care,
  • An extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct, or
  • A failure to exercise even that care which a careless person would use.4
Example: During a routine maintenance check, an amusement park ride operator does not notice that a bolt has come loose. This is most likely ordinary negligence. But if the employee didn't bother to conduct a scheduled inspection at all, a jury might find that the failure to do so constituted gross negligence. An injured rider would likely be able to recover substantial damages in a roller coaster / amusement park injury lawsuit
children on kiddie coaster

3. When do I have to prove this higher standard?

California law sometimes lets people and companies take themselves off the hook for ordinary negligence. But gross negligence can never be waived.

Companies and people who are specifically prevented by statute from relieving themselves of liability for gross negligence include (but are not limited to):

  • Common carriers (such as airplanes, taxis and buses);5
  • Government entities that permit “hazardous recreational activity” (such as swimming) on public property;6
  • People with Red Cross certification who provide CPR at an emergency scene.7
  • Companies that provide training and/or facilities for hazardous recreational activities, including:
    • Gyms,
    • Ski resorts,
    • Horse stables,
    • Racetracks and driving schools,
    • Scuba companies, and
    • Whitewater rafting companies.8

Injured by someone's gross negligence? Call us for help…

California personal injury attorneys gross negligence
Call us at (855) LAW-FIRM


If you or someone you know has been injured by someone else's negligence we invite you to contact us for a free consultation.

Even if you signed a waiver of liability and assumption of the risk agreement, you may still be able to recover.

Call us at (855) LAWFIRM to discuss your case with a lawyer.

We may also be able to help if you were injured as the result of negligence in Nevada.

Legal references:

  1. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 425; City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747.
  2. Eriksson v. Nunnink (2011) 191 Cal.App.4th 826; Wood v. County of San Joaquin(2003) 111 Cal.App.4th 960.
  3. See CACI 451, Affırmative Defense—Contractual Assumption of Risk.
  4. See, e.g., Rosencrans v. Dover Images, Ltd. (2011) 192 Cal.App.4th 1072 [internal citation omitted]; Decker v. City of Imperial Beach (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 349 [internal citations omitted].
  5. California Civil Code § 2175.
  6. California Government Code § 831.7(c)(1).
  7. California Civil Code 1714.2 (b).
  8. See, e.g., footnotes 12-17 in City of Santa Barbara, endnote 1.

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