If you’ve never been involved in a personal injury lawsuit, you’ve probably never given much thought to the concept of negligence. Most people, if asked to define negligence, would characterize it as carelessness or irresponsibility. They probably wouldn’t realize that there is a difference between negligence and gross negligence. In legal matters, however, the two terms have very different and distinct definitions.
What is Negligence?
A person who fails to exercise reasonable care is considered negligent. Massachusetts courts use the word “reasonable” to refer to a standard of behavior that the community would consider good behavior in a dangerous situation.
It’s important to note that this is different from common or typical behavior. We all remember our mothers asking us, “if everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you, too?” This saying, believe it or not, lends itself to the legal definition of negligence as well. For example, lots of people in Massachusetts jaywalk or disobey traffic laws. Just because many people behave this way, however, does not make it reasonably safe conduct.
The Reasonable Person
Since the law hinges on this concept of the reasonable person, let’s dive deeper into how it is defined. In a personal injury suit, when the court is deciding how a reasonable person would have behaved in a situation, it considers four factors. These factors are duty, breach, causation, and damages.
Duty of Care
The first step in determining negligence is establishing whether the defendant had a duty to protect the injured person from harm. For example, every driver on the road has a duty to avoid injuring other drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists.
Breach of Duty
Establishing a duty is not enough to prove negligence. The injured party must prove, with a preponderance of evidence, that the defendant’s actions breached his or her legal duty. For example, a driver who failed to stop at a crosswalk would be in breach of his or her duty owed to pedestrians.
The third step in determining negligence is proving that the defendant’s actions were the cause of the injured person’s injuries. In other words, the plaintiff would not have gotten injured, were it not for the defendant’s behavior. If our driver hits a pedestrian who is using the crosswalk, that is causation. If the driver does not hit the pedestrian, and the pedestrian slips and falls after crossing the street, it will be difficult to prove that the driver caused the injury.
The final factor in determining negligence is proving that the plaintiff has suffered injury to his or her person or harm to his or her property. Even if the defendant failed to behave with reasonable care, negligence can’t be proved unless there are actual damages. If our driver stops short of the pedestrian, startling him but not hitting him, and nobody is harmed, there are no damages.
What is Gross Negligence?
Sometimes, a person acts so recklessly that they demonstrate a clear disregard for the safety of others. This is gross negligence or negligence of a magnitude that is far beyond that of even a careless person.
In order to prove gross negligence, a fifth factor must be considered: recklessness, or a lack of substantial concern for others.
Punitive Damages and Gross Negligence
In most Massachusetts personal injury cases, the injured party will seek compensatory damages. Compensatory damages are intended to compensate the injured party for expenses related to his or her injury, such as lost wages, medical bills, and pain and suffering.
Punitive damages, on the other hand, are intended to punish the defendant for causing harm. Punitive damages are not typically available in Massachusetts personal injury cases. Massachusetts law provides an exception, however, for cases of gross negligence that cause wrongful death. In these cases, punitive damages of $5,000 or more may be awarded.
Consult with a Massachusetts Personal Injury Lawyer
As is often the case with the law, proving negligence can be more complex than it seems on the surface. At the law offices of Peter Ventura, we only handle personal injury cases, and we specialize in serious injury claims.
If you or a loved one has been injured as a result of someone’s negligence, you deserve to be compensated. Let us put our experience to work for you. Contact us today to schedule your free consultation.