Almost all personal injury cases center on the same legal theory – negligence. The negligence theory states that if a person fails to conduct him/herself according to the acceptable standards of behavior to avoid unreasonable risks of harm to others, that person is guilty of negligence. As such, the person may have to compensate victims for any losses they suffered as a result of the act of negligence. A plaintiff (the injured party) suing a defendant (the accused party) on the basis of negligence must show four main elements to prove his or her case. For additional information on the following four elements, consult an experienced West Virginia injury lawyer.
The Defendant Owed a Duty of Care to the Plaintiff
The first element is to establish that the defendant owed the plaintiff a legal duty of care under the circumstances. For example, in a medical malpractice case, the plaintiff must show that a doctor-patient relationship existed at the time of the harm. A licensed physician giving informal advice at a family gathering, for instance, would not constitute a legal patient-doctor relationship or medical malpractice.
A duty of care may be owed in a professional relationship, such as the duties a financial advisor owes to his or her clients. In these situations, accepted standards within the industry determine what the courts may or may not consider negligence. Duties of care will vary depending on the situation: product manufacturers have a duty to create non-hazardous products, drivers have a duty to obey roadway rules, employers have a duty to provide a secure workplace, and property owners have a duty to maintain safe premises.
The Defendant Breached His or Her Duty of Care
This element is often the most difficult to prove, as it requires the plaintiff to show evidence of the defendant’s act of negligence. A “breach of duty” is anything that violates the accepted standards of care for the situation. It may be a doctor’s failure to diagnose a condition, a driver texting and driving, or a pet owner negligently failing to prevent a dog bite incident. Proving negligence may require an investigation into the causes of the accident, eyewitness interviews, and the gathering of other relevant evidence. In many cases, testimony from an expert aids a plaintiff in proving the defendant’s breach of duty of care.
The Defendant’s Breach of Duty Caused the Plaintiff’s Harms
Even if a plaintiff has indisputable evidence of the defendant’s negligence, he or she does not have a negligence claim unless there is proof that the breach of duty was the proximate, or actual, cause of the plaintiff’s harms. Proximate cause means that the harm would not have occurred but for the defendant’s act or failure to act. A plaintiff may use medical records, expert testimony, or eyewitness reports to prove proximate cause.
An example of an act of negligence that would not be grounds for a personal injury claim would be if a nurse confused two prescriptions and accidentally gave a patient the wrong medication, but the mix-up did not cause harm to the patient. The patient cites having a worsened prognosis as the basis for the lawsuit, but the courts find that the harm is due to a terminal illness, not taking the wrong medication. In this scenario, the patient could not sue the nurse despite her error, since it did not cause the patient’s harm.
The Plaintiff Suffered Actual Damages as a Result
The final element in a negligence claim is proving that the plaintiff incurred actual, specific damages from the incident. The civil court gives injured parties the opportunity to file lawsuits with the intent to recover for damages such as medical bills, personal injuries, pain and suffering, and lost wages the accident caused. In the absence of any actual damages, there is no reason for a plaintiff to pursue a claim, as there are no compensable harms. With these four elements, a plaintiff has everything necessary to bring a claim against a negligent party.