What is Negligence?

Attorney Brian White, Houston Texas Lawyer

Accidents happen. Often, accidents happen for a very simple reason – someone fails to exercise a reasonable level of care. Legally speaking, this is referred to as “negligence.”

And, if you get hurt in an accident and decide to file a personal injury case, negligence will likely play a huge role.

In fact, your ability to recover compensation for your medical bills, property damage, lost wages, and suffering could hinge on your attorney’s ability to prove negligence.Here’s what you need to know about the tort of negligence.

Defining Negligence: Four Elements to Know

In very simple terms, negligence occurs when someone suffers an injury of some kind because of another person’s carelessness. In bringing a personal injury claim based on negligence, it is critical to establish four separate elements (as discussed in detail below). These are:

  • Duty
  • Breach of Duty
  • Injury, and
  • Causation.

For instance, let’s say that you were recently injured in a car accident. You’re confident that the accident happened because the other driver was texting at the time of the crash. In order to recover compensation from this driver, you’ll have the burden of proving that this conduct was negligent. Let’s take a look at how this would play out in a personal injury case.

What’s a Duty of Care and When Does Someone Have It?


The first element in a negligence claim is “duty.” This means that you (the plaintiff) have to establish that the person you’re blaming for your injury (the defendant) owed you a duty of care. 

A duty of care is an obligation that’s established by law or custom. It’s essentially a responsibility to act in a certain way so as not to put others at an increased risk of harm.

How is a specific duty of care determined? Generally, a person must act with the “same level of care that someone of ordinary prudence” would under the same circumstances.

Put another way: How would a reasonable person act if they were in the same situation? For instance, when you drive a car, you have a duty to do so safely, obey local and state traffic laws, and with general caution. So, going back to the example above, you’d have to establish that the defendant who slammed into your vehicle owed you a duty of care.

That’s fairly straightforward because you were both behind the wheel and on the same road at the same time.

What Does it Mean to Breach a Duty of Care?

The next element of a negligence claim is “breach.” This means that the defendant’s conduct (whether actions or omissions) weren’t sufficient to satisfy the duty of care that was owed to you.

More simply put, the defendant acted in a way that was unreasonable (or even illegal) under the circumstances. Let’s go back to the example. When you file a lawsuit against the driver who was involved in your accident, you’ll have to prove that they not only owed you a duty of care, but breached it, too.

Here, you’d offer evidence to show that they were distracted by their cellphone and, in turn, were unable to drive with an appropriate level of caution. The fact that they were texting and driving is what breached their duty of care.

What is an “Injury” For the Purposes of a Negligence Claim?

The third element of a negligence claim is “injury” or “damages.” Now, you might be quick to believe that an injury must be physical to count. And, while physical bodily injuries definitely qualify, the term is defined more broadly than that.

Injury refers to an adverse consequence – physical, emotional, financial – that results from a breached duty of care. This could include:

  • Bodily injury
  • Death
  • Property damage
  • Financial consequences, such as medical bills and lost wages
  • Emotional distress and PTSD 

However, keep in mind that, most times, it is critical to show proof of some bodily injury or damage to property. Claims solely for emotional distress or non-economic damages are subject to slightly different rules. For a negligence claim to be successful, you must be able to identify an injury (or damages) of some sort. Without injury, negligence is not actionable. Meaning, you can’t be compensated if there is no damage.

Back to the example. Let’s say you suffer whiplash, a broken arm, and a chest injury in the collision with the distracted driver. Medical bills add up quickly and you’re also forced to miss some time at work. You need to rehab your arm and shoulder, which isn’t cheap.

And, to make matters worse, you suffer from post-accident vehophobia, which means that you are absolutely terrified to get back into your car and drive again after the crash. These are all injuries (damages) that you’d identify in support of your personal injury case.

What’s Causation in a Negligence Claim and Why is it Important?

The final, and perhaps most important, element of a negligence claim is “causation.” You are required to prove that the defendant’s conduct caused your injuries. More specifically, you have to prove that your injuries are a direct and proximate cause of the defendant’s behavior.

Direct cause, or cause-in-fact, means that you wouldn’t have gotten hurt if the defendant hadn’t breached their duty of care to you. Or, “but for” the defendant’s conduct, you would not have been harmed. Proximate cause, or legal cause, means that your injuries are a natural and foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s conduct. 

So, let’s go back to the example once again. You suffered serious injuries in a collision with another driver. You’re claiming that this other driver was distracted at the time of the accident. Now you have to prove that your injuries are a direct and proximate result of the driver’s distraction. 

You might say:

  • The car accident would not have happened if the driver had been paying attention to the road – not his phone – when he was driving. In turn, you would not have been injured.
  • Your damages – the physical injuries, the financial fallout, the mental anguish – are all foreseeable consequences of a distracted driving car accident.

More simply – you got hurt because the other driver wasn’t paying attention to the road. 

Hire a Lawyer – Make Proving Negligence Easier

Proving negligence might seem straightforward. However, it’s often far from easy. There are a lot of different factors that can play a role in a negligence case – and if they aren’t anticipated or handled properly, it could be a disaster.

So, it’s really important to enlist the help of someone who really understands the nuances of tort law and has extensive experience putting successful negligence cases together. Contact our law firm to learn more about how Attorney Brian White Personal Injury Lawyers might be able to help you. Or call us at (713) 500-5000, your first consultation is free.