To recover damages after an accident, the accident must have been caused by someone else’s intentional actions or carelessness.
The legal term for an accident caused by someone’s carelessness is “negligence,” and the vast majority of personal injury cases in Tennessee are negligence cases.
In this article, we’ll look at negligence laws in the Volunteer State.
Negligence is the failure to exercise the appropriate level of care. To put it another way, a negligent act is an act that involves an unreasonable risk of causing harm.
Common examples of negligence include:
Negligence is a legal theory. All legal theories are made up of elements. Each element must be proven in order to establish the legal theory and recover damages.
The 3 elements of negligence are:
Let’s take a closer look at each of these 3 elements.
In general, people owe a duty to adhere to a standard of reasonable care while performing acts that could foreseeably harm others. For example, drivers owe all others on the road the duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid harming them.
In some cases, the standard of care owed is more specific. For example, premises liability laws in Tennessee dictate that property owners owe certain specific duties (such as searching for dangerous conditions) depending on the classification of the person injured.
In other cases, the standard of care owed is higher than the standard of reasonable care. For example, common carriers (those who transport people or property for money) have a duty to exercise the “highest degree of care” as opposed to a “reasonable degree of care.”
Other examples of different types of individuals and their respective duties of care include:
|Drivers||Owe a duty to exercise “reasonable care” to avoid harming others on the road|
|Store owners||Owe a duty to exercise “reasonable care” in the maintenance of a business premises, including the duty to eliminate or warn customers about dangerous conditions on the premises|
|Healthcare professionals||Owe a duty to exercise “the degree of care and skill expected of a reasonable healthcare provider in the same profession”|
|Product manufacturers||Owe a duty to sell products that are free from defects|
|Bus drivers and other common carriers (pilots, taxi drivers, etc.)||Owe a duty to exercise the highest degree of care to secure the safety of passengers|
Once you determine the standard of care that the defendant owed the plaintiff, the court must decide whether the defendant breached the standard of care.
There is no simple formula for determining whether a defendant breached the applicable standard of care. Often, the determination is based on whether the defendant should have foreseen the harm.
In other words:
Would an ordinary person in the defendant’s position have anticipated the harm that ultimately resulted?
In the case of professionals (especially those in highly-technical fields, such as doctors and pilots), experts are typically brought in to testify as to the industry norms and whether the professional’s conduct fell within those norms.
Just because someone acted carelessly, doesn’t mean they were negligent. In order to be negligent, the defendant’s carelessness must have caused the plaintiff’s injury.
Consider the following example:
In this example, Hank clearly breached his duty to exercise reasonable care by driving while intoxicated. However, Hank’s breach didn’t cause or contribute to James’ accident and therefore Hank would not be found negligent for James’ injuries.
In Tennessee, punitive damages are available if the defendant acted with “gross negligence.”
So what is gross negligence and how does it differ from ordinary negligence?
To put it another way, a person who acts with gross negligence creates such a significant risk of serious bodily injury or death that their actions must be considered something more than careless.
Let’s look at 2 examples to illustrate the difference between ordinary negligence and gross negligence:
Remember, negligence requires a plaintiff to prove that the defendant owed them a duty and that the defendant breached the duty.
Under the doctrine of negligence per se, the defendant’s law-breaking act serves to establish the first 2 elements of negligence automatically.
In other words, if negligence per se applies, the plaintiff doesn’t need to prove that they were owed a duty or that the defendant breached the duty.
So when does negligence per se apply in Tennessee?
Negligence per se applies in situations where the defendant breaks a law that:
Tennessee follows a “modified comparative fault rule,” which reduces the amount of damages a plaintiff can recover by their degree of fault. What’s more, if the plaintiff is determined to be 50% or more at fault, the plaintiff is barred from recovery ANY damages.
Let’s look at an example: