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Q: What is negligence? I’ve seen the word used a lot on your website in relation to traffic accidents, but I don’t understand the concept.

That’s a great question! As Pennsylvania trial attorneys, we’ve become used to using special terms like “negligence” that have a unique meaning for lawyers. We forget that most people are unfamiliar with our legal jargon.

The concept of negligence is central to understanding civil law and every injury case. If you call on the services of a Pennsylvania personal injury lawyer, trust us: negligence is going to be at the heart of your lawsuit, even if your attorney never actual mentions the word to you.

This Is Your Chance to Learn Our Specialized Vocabulary

Negligence occurs when someone fails to exercise the reasonable level of care that a normally careful person would be expected to apply in particular circumstances. Because of this failure to uphold responsibility, someone else suffers a loss. We say that the first person (sometimes called the tortfeasor) behaved negligently by his actions or inaction. The person who was hurt has suffered damages from the actions of the negligent party. In the lawsuit, the person who was hurt will be called the plaintiff and will initiate the case; the other person—the defendant—risks that the jury will find him liable for the incident. He will then be required to make things right as much as possible by paying money to the plaintiff.

To establish negligence, your lawyer will have to prove the following three things to the satisfaction of the judge and jury:

  • That the defendant had a duty of care with respect to the plaintiff.
  • That the defendant violated this duty of care by failing to protect the plaintiff against injury to a reasonable degree.
  • That this failure by the defendant directly caused some harm or loss to the plaintiff.

Understanding Reasonable Duty of Care

We all have a duty to look out for one another, the same way a reasonable man would act to avoid harming others. “Reasonable” is a pretty vague term—but that’s a deliberate choice, because what constitutes reasonable action depends crucially on circumstances. The greater the inherent risk of something you’re trying to do, the higher degree of care you must take to be “reasonable.” A pedestrian walking down the sidewalk has a fairly low responsibility to protect other people from accidents he might cause. Someone driving a motor vehicle must exercise more caution, because cars and trucks are inherently more dangerous. Someone juggling chainsaws in a public performance or a demolition team preparing to implode an old office building must take correspondingly greater precautions.

Two Steps Beyond Negligence

If someone fails to take the precautions a prudent person would take, he is negligent, and he bears financial responsibility for the consequences. But there are also two levels of misbehavior that are more outrageous that mere negligence. You may have heard both these terms before:

  • Recklessness – If someone knows that there is a significant risk from his actions and proceeds anyway with a disregard for other people’s wellbeing, this behavior is called reckless. A reckless disregard for other people’s lives or health is considered more offensive than just being negligent. Examples would include a construction company that used substandard materials to build a new freeway ramp—even though the owner understood there was a significant risk the ramp would fail under the weight of traffic; or a truck driver who chooses to try to earn a bonus for delivering cargo early—even though that means he must drive for over 24 hours and risk falling asleep at the wheel.
  • Maliciousness – Someone acts with malice when he deliberately intends to harm someone else—either a random stranger or a specific individual. Acting with malice is considered more offensive than reckless behavior. Examples of malicious acts would include an ex-employee returning to his old workplace with the intention of harming the manager who fired him, or a person who tries to set fire to his neighbor’s garage because of a property-line quarrel.

Because reckless and malicious behavior go beyond negligence, they are considered valid reasons to seek punitive damages in a civil lawsuit. Punitive damages are awards that go beyond compensation for the harms inflicted on the plaintiff and instead seek to punish and deter bad behavior.

Our Harrisburg Personal Injury Attorneys Are Ready to Assist You With Your Negligence Case

If you have been harmed by the negligent actions of another person, you may be entitled to ask for compensation for your losses—both financial and personal. That’s when you should consider calling on us. Schmidt Kramer is more than just a collection of car accident lawyers. We’re ready to take on any personal injury case where we believe we can effectively help someone seek a full and fair result.

Give us a chance to help you. Call our Harrisburg office at (717) 888-8888 toll-free to arrange for a FREE case review. We respect your privacy, and your meeting and personal information will be confidential.