When is a person considered negligent in the Hoosier State?
It’s almost impossible to talk about personal injury law without using the word “negligence.” The word is so prevalent in the legal world that lawyers sometimes overlook the fact that not everyone knows what it means.
To clear up any confusion you may have, let’s take a close look at negligence and how it’s defined in the state of Indiana.
What is negligence?
Most accidents happen because someone is careless or reckless. If this carelessness falls below a legally-recognized standard, the person’s behavior is considered “negligent” and they’re liable for any injuries caused as a result of their negligence.
Here are some common examples of actions (or inactions) that are usually negligent:
- A driver runs a red light or stop sign
- A driver operates a vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- A restaurant owner mops a floor and fails to put up a “wet floor” sign
- A doctor operates on the wrong body part because the doctor misread a medical chart
Elements of negligence
To establish negligence in Indiana, a plaintiff must prove 4 elements:
- Duty. The plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed them a duty of care. A duty of care arises when the law recognizes a relationship between the plaintiff and defendant requiring the defendant to exercise a certain standard of care to avoid harming the plaintiff.
- Breach. The plaintiff must prove that the defendant breached the duty of care. A breach occurs when the defendant fails to meet the standard of care required.
- Causation. The plaintiff must prove that the injury was caused by the defendant’s breach.
- Damages. The plaintiff must prove that they actually suffered some harm.
Let’s take a closer look at the first element: 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 circumstances. This means that, after being presented evidence, a judge or jury will decide what a reasonable person would have done in a similar situation. If the defendant departed from what a reasonable person would have done, the judge or jury is likely to side with the plaintiff and find the defendant negligent.
Often, the determination of whether a defendant departed from what a reasonable person would have done is based on whether the defendant should have foreseen the harm. In other words, would an ordinary person in the defendant’s position anticipate the harm that ultimately resulted?
Let’s look at a couple of examples:
Sarah is probably NOT negligent because she was acting reasonably by playing baseball on a little league field. What’s more, hitting a foul ball is a normal part of the game.
But let’s look at another example:
Tyler is probably negligent because a reasonable person wouldn’t play baseball in a crowded parking lot. What’s more, he should have foreseen that his actions (hitting a baseball in a crowded parking lot) would likely cause harm.
The legal standard of care isn’t always the degree of care that a reasonable person would exercise under the circumstances. Sometimes, the standard of care is more specific.
For example, premises liability laws in Indiana dictate that the standard of care a property owner is held to depends on the classification of the person who is injured. Indiana recognizes distinctions between licensees, trespassers, and invitees.
Other times, the standard of care is simply higher. For example, in Atlantic Coast Airlines v. Cook, the Indiana Supreme Court held that common carriers (drivers who transport people for money, such as bus drivers and taxi drivers) are required to exercise the “highest degree of care to secure the safety of passengers.”
Here are some examples of different types of individuals and their duty of care:
|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 a business premises, including keeping the premises free of dangerous conditions|
|Medical 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 or other common carriers||Duty to exercise the highest degree of care to secure the safety of passengers|
Here’s a real case to give you a better understanding of negligence and how it’s handled in Indiana:
Thomas Jones was a tenant in an apartment owned by James Rossow. Three concrete steps lead from the sidewalk to Jones’ apartment. In December, Jones slipped and fell on the ice and snow that had accumulated on the steps. He sued Rossow for damages.
The court explained that owners owe tenants a duty to exercise reasonable care in the maintenance of rental properties and that this duty extends generally to the removal of snow and ice from the premises.
However, an owner isn’t liable in every situation.
One consideration when determining whether or not an owner is liable for failing to remove snow and ice from the premises is how long an owner had to remove the snow and ice.
In Jones v. Rossow, the court found that Rossow breached his duty of care because the snow and ice had been sitting on the steps for a week and he was aware of the issue.
A separate Indiana case, however, found that an owner was NOT liable when the snow the tenant slipped on had only been present for 20 minutes.
Negligence per se
So negligence requires a plaintiff to prove that the defendant owed them a duty and that the defendant breached that duty. Under the doctrine of negligence per se, the defendant’s law-breaking act serves to establish those first 2 elements of negligence automatically.
In other words, if the plaintiff can show that the defendant broke the law, 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 Indiana, negligence per se is only available in situations where the law the defendant broke:
- Was enacted for the protection and safety of the public, and
- Expresses the rules of conduct in specific and concrete terms.
Many of Indiana’s traffic laws fit these requirements. For example, Indiana law states that all cars must come to a complete stop at stop signs. The law is enacted for the safety of other drivers and pedestrians.
If a driver approaching a stop sign fails to stop and strikes another car, the driver will likely be found negligent per se. This would save the injured driver the trouble of having to prove that the driver owed them a duty and breached that duty.
Keep in mind that the injured pedestrian would still have to show causation (that the failure to stop at the stop sign caused the injury) and damages (that the breach of duty resulted in actual harm).
Comparative fault in Indiana
Indiana is a modified comparative fault state, which means that the plaintiff’s damages are reduced by their percentage of fault. What’s more, if the plaintiff is considered more than 50% at fault for the accident, the plaintiff is barred from recovering ANY damages.
Let’s look at an example:
A jury might find that the driver of the vehicle behind you was 70% at fault for following too closely, while also finding you 30% at fault for driving with a broken brake light. Under Indiana’s modified comparative fault rule, you would only be able to recover 70% of your total damages from the defendant.
What to do if your injury was caused by someone else’s negligence
If you’ve been injured by someone else’s negligence, you’ll need to file a personal injury lawsuit to receive compensation. A personal injury attorney can help you determine the value of your claim, gather evidence, and establish negligence.
Consider using the Enjuris Law Firm Directory to find an experienced Indiana personal injury lawyer near you so you can begin to put your life back together.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.