Determining liability for an accident usually means determining who was careless
If you spend any time around attorneys or insurance agents, you’ve probably heard the term “negligence” more times than you care to count.
Negligence is by far the most common basis for personal injury lawsuits and car insurance claims in the United States.
In short, “negligence” refers to a person’s failure to exercise the appropriate degree of care. But, as is often the case in the legal world, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Let’s take a look at negligence and what it means for your Alabama personal injury claim.
What is negligence?
The vast majority of accidents happen because someone is careless. If a person’s carelessness falls below a legally-recognized standard, the person’s behavior is considered “negligent,” and the person will be liable for any injuries that result from their negligence.
Common examples of actions (or omissions) that are usually negligent include:
- A driver operating a vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- A store owner failing to put up a “wet floor” sign after mopping a floor
- A homeowner failing to replace rotted porch steps
- A pharmacist misreading a prescription and providing the wrong medication
How do you prove negligence in Alabama?
Negligence is a distinct cause of action, which means you can prove negligence and recover damages if you can establish 4 elements:
- Duty. You must prove that the defendant owed you a duty of care.
- Breach. You must prove that the defendant breached the duty of care owed.
- Causation. You must prove your injury was caused by the defendant’s breach.
- Damages. You must prove that you actually suffered some harm.
One of the elements most often discussed in negligence lawsuits is the element of duty.
In most cases, the standard of care a defendant owes a plaintiff is the degree of care that a “reasonable person” would exercise under the same circumstances. In other words, the judge or jury must ask themselves: What level of care would someone of ordinary prudence have exercised in the same situation?
Judges and jurors often determine whether a defendant acted with a reasonable degree of care by considering the following factors:
- The foreseeable likelihood that the defendant’s conduct would result in harm
- The foreseeable severity of the harm
- The burden of precautions to eliminate or reduce the risk of harm
Consider the example of someone who decides to drink and drive. The likelihood that someone will get hurt is high (drunk driving accidents are common), the severity of the harm is also high (car accidents often result in serious injuries or fatalities) and the burden of precautions to eliminate or reduce the risk of harm is incredibly low (the defendant could call a taxi). Consequently, someone who consumes alcohol and drives is not acting with a reasonable degree of care.
The legal standard of care that applies to a case isn’t always the degree of care that a reasonable person would exercise under the circumstances. Sometimes, the standard of care is more specific.
|Common standards of care in Alabama|
|Drivers||Duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid harming other people on the road.|
|Store owners||Duty to exercise reasonable care in the maintenance of business premises, including keeping the premises free of dangerous conditions.|
|Doctors and other healthcare professionals||Duty to exercise the degree of skill and care expected of a reasonable health care provider in the same profession with the same training and experience.|
|Product manufacturers||Duty to sell products that are free from defects.|
|Bus drivers and other common carriers||Duty to exercise the highest degree of care to secure the safety of passengers.|
Another element that’s often discussed in negligence cases is the element of causation.
In short, you must prove that the defendant’s breach caused your injuries. In other words, but for the defendant’s act (or omission), the injury would not have occurred. Causation seems like an easy enough element to prove, but it can be surprisingly tricky. Consider the following example:
In 1990, Bill developed a rare form of cancer that most doctors agreed was caused by prolonged exposure to a toxic chemical commonly found in weed killers.
Bill, believing Weed Away was responsible for his cancer, sued the University of Alabama.
On the surface, it seems likely that Weed Away caused Bill’s cancer. But how can Bill definitively prove that his cancer was caused by Weed Away and not some other weed killer that he was exposed to at some other point in his life? What if there are other causes of his cancer, such as genetics? What if some doctors don’t believe the toxic chemical at issue even causes cancer?
As you can see, proving causation, particularly in cases in which the injury becomes apparent long after the accident or exposure, can be difficult.
What is negligence per se?
The term “negligence per se” refers to a legal doctrine whereby an act is considered negligent if the act violates a statute.
In other words, if the plaintiff can show that the defendant violated a particular statute, the plaintiff doesn’t have to show that the defendant owed them a duty and breached that duty.
Negligence per se isn’t available in all cases. In Alabama, negligence per se is only available in situations where the statute the defendant broke:
- Was enacted for the protection and safety of the public, and
- Expresses the rules of conduct in specific and concrete terms.
For example, if the defendant violated a fire code and, as a result of this violation, your building was damaged by a fire that wouldn’t have occurred had the defendant followed the code, the defendant would be liable under the doctrine of negligence per se.
Contributory negligence in Alabama
Alabama adopted a pure contributory negligence statute, which means a plaintiff is barred from recovering ANY damages if they’re even 1 percent responsible for causing their accident.
Let’s look at an example of an Alabama contributory negligence auto accident:
Anna is driving west on Old Madison Pike. She receives a text and begins reading it. As she’s reading the text, she swerves into the eastbound lane and crashes into Raymond.
Raymond suffers a serious back injury and sues Anna for $1 million.
The jury finds that Anna is 98 percent at fault for the accident because she was texting and driving. The jury finds that Raymond is 2 percent at fault for the accident because he didn’t have his headlights on despite the poor visibility.
Under Alabama’s pure contributory negligence rule, Raymond is barred from recovering ANY damages.
If Alabama’s pure contributory negligence rule sounds harsh, it’s because it is harsh. Alabama is 1 of only 4 states to adopt the pure contributory negligence rule.
What should you do if you were injured as a result of someone else’s negligence?
If you’ve been injured as a result of someone else’s negligence, you may be able to recover damages by filing a personal injury lawsuit. A personal injury attorney can help you determine the value of your claim, gather evidence and establish the elements of negligence.
To find an experienced Alabama personal injury attorney in your area, consult our free online directory.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.