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NEGLIGENCE

(The following article is excerpted from West's Encyclopedia of American Law.)

Conduct that falls below the standards of behavior established by law for the protection of others against unreasonable risk of harm. A person has acted negligently if he or she has departed from the conduct expected of a reasonably prudent person acting under similar circumstances. Negligence is also the name of a cause of action in the law of torts. To establish negligence, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant had a duty to the plaintiff, the defendant breached that duty by failing to conform to the required standard of conduct, the defendant's negligent conduct was the cause of the harm to the plaintiff, and the plaintiff was, in fact, harmed or damaged.

The concept of negligence developed under English law. Although English common law had long imposed liability for the wrongful acts of others, negligence did not emerge as an independent cause of action until the eighteenth century. Another important concept emerged at that time: legal liability for a failure to act. Originally liability for failing to act was imposed on those who undertook to perform some service and breached a promise to exercise care or skill in performing that service. Gradually the law began to imply a promise to exercise care or skill in the performance of certain services. This promise to exercise care, whether express or implied, formed the origins of the modern concept of "duty." For example, innkeepers were said to have a duty to protect the safety and security of their guests.

The concept of negligence passed from Great Britain to the United States as each state (except Louisiana) adopted the common law of Great Britain (Louisiana adopted the civil law of France). Although there have been important developments in negligence law, the basic concepts have remained the same since the eighteenth century. Today negligence is by far the widest-ranging tort, encompassing virtually all unintentional, wrongful conduct that injures others. One of the most important concepts in negligence law is the "reasonable person," which provides the standard by which a person's conduct is judged.

The Reasonable Person
A person has acted negligently if he or she has departed from the conduct expected of a reasonably prudent person acting under similar circumstances. The hypothetical reasonable person provides an objective by which the conduct of others is judged. In law, the reasonable person is not an average person or a typical person but a composite of the community's judgment as to how the typical community member should behave in situations that might pose a threat of harm to the public. Even though the majority of people in the community may behave in a certain way, that does not establish the standard of conduct of the reasonable person. For example, a majority of people in a community may jaywalk, but jaywalking might still fall below the community's standards of safe conduct.

The concept of the reasonable person distinguishes negligence from intentional torts such as assault and battery. To prove an intentional tort, the plaintiff seeks to establish that the defendant deliberately acted to injure the plaintiff. In a negligence suit, however, the plaintiff seeks to establish that the failure of the defendant to act as a reasonable person would have acted caused the plaintiff's injury. An intoxicated driver who accidentally injures a pedestrian may not have intended to cause the pedestrian's injury. But because a reasonable person would not drive while intoxicated because it creates an unreasonable risk of harm to pedestrians and other drivers, an intoxicated driver may be held liable to an injured plaintiff for negligence despite his lack of intent to injure the plaintiff.

The law considers a variety of factors in determining whether a person has acted as the hypothetical reasonable person would have acted in a similar situation. These factors include the knowledge, experience, and perception of the person, the activity the person is engaging in, the physical characteristics of the person, and the circumstances surrounding the person's actions.

Knowledge, Experience and Perception
The law takes into account a person's knowledge, experience, and perceptions in determining whether the person has acted as a reasonable person would have acted in the same circumstances. Conduct must be judged in light of a person's actual knowledge and observations, because the reasonable person always takes this into account. Thus, if a driver sees another car approaching at night without lights, the driver must act reasonably to avoid an accident, even though the driver would not have been negligent in failing to see the other car.

In addition to actual knowledge, the law also considers most people to have the same knowledge, experience, and ability to perceive as the hypothetical reasonable person. In the absence of unusual circumstances, a person must see what is clearly visible and hear what is clearly audible. Therefore, a driver of a car hit by a train at an unobstructed railroad crossing cannot claim that she was not negligent because she did not see or hear the train, because a reasonable person would have seen or heard the train.

Also, a person cannot deny personal knowledge of basic facts commonly known in the community. The reasonable person knows that ice is slippery, that live wires are dangerous, that alcohol impairs driving ability, and that children might run into the street when they are playing. To act as a reasonable person, an individual must even take into account his or her lack of knowledge of some situations, such as when walking down a dark, unfamiliar corridor.

Finally, a person who undertakes a particular activity is ordinarily considered to have the knowledge common to others who engage in that activity. A motorist must know the rules of road and a product manufacturer must know the characteristics and dangers of its product, at least to the extent they are generally known in the industry.

Special Skills
If a person engages in an activity requiring special skills, education, training, or experience, such as piloting an airplane, the standard by which his or her conduct is measured is the conduct of a reasonably skilled, competent, and experienced person who is a qualified member of the group authorized to engage in that activity. In other words, the hypothetical reasonable person is a skilled, competent, and experienced person who engages in the same activity. Often persons practicing these special skills must be licensed, such as physicians, lawyers, architects, barbers, pilots, and drivers. Anyone who performs these special skills, whether qualified or not, is held to the standards of conduct of those properly qualified to do so, because the public relies on the special expertise of those who engage in such activities. Thus, an unlicensed driver who takes his friends for a joyride is held to the standard of conduct of an experienced, licensed driver.

The law does not make a special allowance for beginners with regard to special skills. The learner, beginner, or trainee in a special skill is held to the standard of conduct of persons who are reasonably skilled and experienced in the activity. Sometimes the beginner is held to a standard he or she cannot meet. For example, a first-time driver clearly does not possess the experience and skill of an experienced driver. Although it seems unfair to hold the beginner to the standards of the more experienced person, this standard protects the general public from the risk of a beginner's lack of competence, because the community is usually defenseless to guard against such risks.

Physical Characteristics
The law takes a person's physical characteristics into account in determining whether that person's conduct is negligent. Whether a person's conduct is reasonable, and therefore not negligent, is measured against a reasonably prudent person with the same physical characteristics. There are two reasons for taking physical characteristics into account. A physically impaired individual cannot be expected to conform to a standard of conduct that would be physically impossible for her to meet. On the other hand, a physically handicapped person must act reasonably in light of her handicap, and she may be negligent in taking a risk that is unreasonable in light of her known physical limitations. Thus, it would be negligent for a blind person to drive an automobile.

Mental Capacity
Although a person's physical characteristics are taken into account in determining negligence, the person's mental capacity is generally ignored and does not excuse the person from acting according to the reasonable person standard. The fact that an individual is lacking in intelligence, judgment, memory, or emotional stability does not excuse the person's failure to act as a reasonably prudent person would have acted under the same circumstances. For example, a person who causes a forest fire by failing to extinguish his campfire cannot claim that he was not negligent because he lacked the intelligence, judgment, or experience to appreciate the risk of an untended campfire.

Similarly, evidence of voluntary intoxication will not excuse conduct that is otherwise negligent. Although intoxication affects a person's judgment, voluntary intoxication will not excuse negligent conduct, because it is the person's conduct, not his or her mental condition, that determines negligence. In some cases a person's intoxication is relevant to determining whether his or her conduct is negligent, however, because undertaking certain activities, such as driving, while intoxicated poses a danger to others.

Children
Children may be negligent, but they are not held to the same standard of conduct as adults. A child's conduct is measured against the conduct expected of a child of similar age, intelligence, and experience. Unlike the standard for adults, the standard of reasonable conduct for children takes into account subjective factors such as intelligence and experience. In this sense the standard is less strict than for adults, because children normally do not engage in the high-risk activities of adults and adults dealing with children are expected to anticipate their "childish" behavior.

In many states children are presumed incapable of negligence below a certain age, usually seven years. In some states children between the ages of seven and fourteen years are presumed to be incapable of negligence, although this presumption can be rebutted. Once a person reaches the "age of majority," usually eighteen years, he or she is held to adult standards of conduct.

One major exception to the rules of negligence exists with regard to children. If a child is engaging in what is considered an "adult activity," such as driving an automobile or flying an airplane, he or she will be held to an adult standard of care. The higher standard of care imposed for these types of activities is justified by the special skills required to engage in them and the danger they pose to the general public.

Emergencies
The law recognizes that even a reasonable person can make errors in judgment in emergency situations. Therefore, a person's conduct in an emergency is evaluated in light of whether it was a reasonable response under the circumstances, even though, in hindsight, another course of action might have avoided the injury.

In some circumstances failure to anticipate an emergency may constitute negligence. The reasonable person anticipates, and takes precautions against, foreseeable emergencies. For example, the owner of a theater must consider the possibility of a fire, and the owner of a swimming pool must consider the possibility of a swimmer drowning. Failure to guard against such emergencies can constitute negligence.

Also, a person can be negligent in causing an emergency, even if he or she acts reasonably during the emergency. A theater owner whose negligence causes a fire, for instance, would be liable for the injuries to the patrons, even if she saved lives during the fire.

Conduct of Others
Finally, the reasonable person takes into account the conduct of others and regulates his or her own conduct accordingly. A reasonable person must even foresee the unlawful or negligent conduct of others if the situation warrants. Thus, a person may be found negligent for leaving a car unlocked with the keys in the ignition because of the foreseeable risk of theft, or for failing to slow down in the vicinity of a school yard where children might negligently run into the street.

Proof of Negligence
In a negligence suit, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that the defendant did not act as a reasonable person would have acted under the circumstances. The court will instruct the jury as to the standard of conduct required of the defendant. For example, a defendant sued for negligent driving is judged according to how a reasonable person would have driven in the same circumstances. A plaintiff has a variety of means of proving that a defendant did not act as the hypothetical reasonable person would have acted. The plaintiff can show that the defendant violated a statute designed to protect against the type of injury that occurred to the plaintiff. Also, a plaintiff might introduce expert witnesses, evidence of a customary practice, or circumstantial evidence.

Statutes
Federal and state statutes, municipal ordinances, and administrative regulations regulate all kinds of conduct and frequently impose standards of conduct to be observed. For example, the law prohibits driving through a red traffic light at an intersection. A plaintiff injured by a defendant who ignored a red light can introduce the defendant's violation of the statute as evidence that the defendant acted negligently. However, a plaintiff's evidence that the defendant violated a statute does not always establish that the defendant acted unreasonably. The statute that was violated must have been intended to protect against the particular hazard or type of harm that caused injury to the plaintiff.

Sometimes physical circumstances beyond a person's control can excuse the violation of a statute, such as when the headlights of a vehicle suddenly fail, or when a driver swerves into oncoming traffic to avoid a child who darted into the street. To excuse the violation, the defendant must establish that, in failing to comply with the statute, he or she acted as a reasonable person would have acted.

In many jurisdictions the violation of a statute, regulation, or ordinance enacted to protect against the harm that resulted to the plaintiff is considered "negligence per se." Unless the defendant presents evidence excusing the violation of the statute, the defendant's negligence is conclusively established. In some jurisdictions a defendant's violation of a statute is merely evidence that the defendant acted negligently.

Experts
Often a plaintiff will need an expert witness to establish that the defendant did not adhere to the conduct expected of a reasonably prudent person in the defendant's circumstances. A juror may be unable to determine from his own experience, for example, if the medicine prescribed by a physician was reasonably appropriate for a patient's illness. Experts may provide the jury with information beyond the common knowledge of jurors, such as scientific theories, data, tests, and experiments. Also, in cases involving professionals such as physicians, experts establish the standard of care expected of the professional. In the above example, the patient might have a physician offer expert testimony regarding the medication that a reasonably prudent physician would have prescribed for the patient's illness.

Custom
Evidence of the usual and customary conduct or practice of others under similar circumstances can be admitted to establish the proper standard of reasonable conduct. Like the evidence provided by expert witnesses, evidence of custom and habit is usually used in cases where the nature of the alleged negligence is beyond the common knowledge of the jurors. Often such evidence is presented in cases alleging negligence in some business activity. For example, a plaintiff suing the manufacturer of a punch press that injured her might present evidence that all other manufacturers of punch presses incorporate a certain safety device that would have prevented the injury.

A plaintiff's evidence of conformity or nonconformity with a customary practice does not establish whether the defendant was negligent; the jury decides whether a reasonably prudent person would have done more or less than is customary.

Circumstantial Evidence
Sometimes a plaintiff has no direct evidence of how the defendant acted and must attempt to prove his or her case through circumstantial evidence. Of course, any fact in a lawsuit may be proved by circumstantial evidence. Skid marks can establish the speed a car was traveling prior to a collision, a person's appearance can circumstantially prove his or her age, etc. Sometimes a plaintiff in a negligence lawsuit must prove his or her entire case by circumstantial evidence. Suppose a plaintiff's shoulder is severely injured during an operation to remove his tonsils. The plaintiff, who was unconscious during the operation, sues the doctor in charge of the operation for negligence, even though he has no idea how the injury actually occurred. The doctor refuses to say how the injury occurred, so the plaintiff will have to prove his case by circumstantial evidence.

In cases such as this, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur ("the thing speaks for itself") is invoked. Res ipsa loquitor allows a plaintiff to prove negligence on the theory that his or her injury could not have occurred in the absence of the defendant's negligence. The plaintiff must establish that the injury was caused by an instrumentality or condition that was under the defendant's exclusive management or control and that the plaintiff's injury would not have occurred if the defendant had acted with reasonable care. Thus, in the above example, the plaintiff can use res ipsa loquitor to prove that the doctor negligently injured his shoulder.

   
 
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