What is the Meaning of Negligence in Law?

judge sitting at desk with laptop and gavel
January 20, 2022
Legally Reviewed By Rand Spear, Esq.


When considering any personal injury case, one of the tent pole words is negligence. A personal injury lawyer’s job is to proving negligence. A personal injury case will be unsuccessful without identifying negligent actions. A common question our clients ask during our first meeting is, “what is negligence in law?” By knowing the definition, a personal injury attorney’s strategy for proving negligence becomes slightly clearer.


The everyday definition of negligence is the failure to take proper care in doing something according to Dictionary.com. This meaning is not specific enough for legal purposes. The legal definition of negligence is “A failure to behave with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances,” according to Cornell University. Unlike the basic meaning, the legal definition of negligence specifies a standard of comparison to distinguish individuals practicing negligent actions. So in basic terms, proving negligence comes down to whether a reasonable person would perform an action. In some instances negligence can be a failure to act or to take necessary actions to project another party from harm.


It is easier in theory to distinguish prudent or reasonable actions from negligent actions. Courts have provided more context to help differentiate by listing four elements of negligence. It is the job of a personal injury attorney to prove each of these four elements of negligence.

  • Duty of Care
    Duty of care is defined as a responsibility to practice a certain degree of caution, attention, prudence or regard, according to FindLaw.com. This element is usually the easiest to prove because many laws clearly state duty of care during specific situations.
  • Breach of Duty
    This element is investigated after a situation’s duty of care is clearly defined, because breach of duty identifies where the defendant failed to behave with reasonable care. This element boils down to the question, “should the defendant be legally responsible for the consequences of their actions?”
  • Causation
    Causation links negligence to personal injury. The goal of causation is showing that the defendant’s reckless actions directly caused your injuries. This link has to be a direct and clear connection, which the court labels “proximate cause”.
  • Damages
    The concept of damages is identifying the harm and injuries and translating them into an amount of money. In some personal injury cases, this element is the most complicated. In a personal injury claim, monetary losses, pain, suffering, and limitations to daily life are examples of damages.

When proving the elements of negligence, all four elements need to be accepted. If the defendant or an insurance company challenges the soundness of even one element, a personal injury case may be lost. Personal injury lawyers are experts and have experience with the law of negligence, so they can help to ensure your four elements are accepted. 


Negligence is a general concept, but there are four types of negligence. Each type is based off of the assigned fault, whether the blame can be squarely directed at one party or partial fault is divided among multiple parties. 

  • Comparative Negligence is when the fault is divided between the injured party and a defendant. Under comparative negligence, the injured party still has the ability to file a personal injury case for compensation, but any payout will only be a percentage of the total damages. This percentage equals the percentage of fault a defendant has in causing the injury.
  • Contributory Negligence is the injured party practicing behavior that puts themselves at risk. This type of negligence is important, because in a personal injury accident, the injured party “has a duty to act as a reasonable person” according to FindLaw. The defendant can assert a contributory negligence claim against the injured party trying to sue them.
  • Gross Negligence is the most serious form of negligence. This negligence type is a complete violation of the other party’s wellbeing or safety. Gross negligence is behavior so reckless that it is considered a conscious disregard of another’s right to safety.
  • Vicarious Negligence is when a defendant is indirectly responsible for the injured party’s damages. Even though the defendant is not directly to blame for injuries suffered, in many cases, paying damages is still their responsibility.


If someone else’s negligence caused your injuries, there are basic steps to improve the chances of compensation for your damages. Whether it is a car accident or a slip and fall, following the initial steps listed below will help prove negligence.

  • Document the injury. This may be collecting a police or incident report following the accident. 
  • Immediately after the accident, schedule an appointment with a medical professional to diagnose injury severity and collect documentation for your medical records.
  • Speak with a personal injury attorney, who will conduct their own investigation, collect evidence, and speak with witnesses.

The length of time it will take to complete these initial steps will vary. After the completion of the steps above, a personal injury attorney will determine the strength of your case. There is no downside to filing a lawsuit. There is a two year statute of limitations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for filing this lawsuit.


After suffering a personal injury accident, speak with an attorney as soon as possible. Unlike insurance companies or the defendant’s representatives, a personal injury attorney will represent your best interests. During the uncertainty following a personal injury accident, an injury lawyer can be your guide. With their expertise, they can do the necessary legwork to collect evidence, speak with witnesses, and determine whether you have a case.

At Spear Greenfield, our personal injury lawyers and legal staff have over 200 years of collective experience. We passionately fight for the best interests of our clients! We show this by not only offering a free initial consultation, but we are no win, no fee lawyers. This means that our office will only collect money if you win your personal injury case! Call us now to learn more about your legal options following your personal injury accident.

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