Updated: Sep 11
This article breaks down a negligence claim into three simple parts.
Negligence as a general concept is quite simple, and many Washington businesses have an inherent sense of how to avoid negligence claims, by acting with reasonable care towards others. But because negligence is a legal concept with extremely broad applicability, it is important for a WA business to understand and appreciate the specific mechanics involved in building a negligence claim.
"...acting with reasonable care towards others."
How to prove a negligence claim:
In an action alleging negligence, a plaintiff must show:
(1) the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff;
(2) the defendant breached the duty by a negligent act or omission;
(3) the defendant's breach was an actual and proximate cause of the plaintiff's injury; and
(4) the plaintiff suffered injury or damages.
In every practical sense, there wouldn't be an allegation unless someone suffered an injury. Therefore, we can really break this down into three elements: duty, breach, and proximate cause.
With the first element of a negligence claim, the plaintiff must show that the defendant had a legal duty to act or not act in some particular way. Sometimes the law, through statute, is explicit about legal duties. For instance, when a statute sets a maximum speed limit for highways, that imposes a clear obligation on the part of a driver to drive within that speed limit. But people can cause injuries in a virtually infinite number of ways. Therefore, the law imposes a general duty, in all circumstances, for people to behave with reasonable care towards others. Therefore, the question of duty isn't always answered by a clear statute. Often the question of duty is simply, "What would a reasonable person have done in that situation, under those circumstances?"
"...people can cause injuries in a virtually infinite number of ways."
Once a plaintiff has established that the defendant had a legal duty, the next question is whether the defendant actually failed to fulfill that duty by acting in a certain way. For example, we know a driver has a legal duty to refrain from breaching the speed limit. The next issue is gathering the evidence that shows, at the time of incident, the car was indeed driving faster than the speed limit, thus breaching a legal duty toward the plaintiff.
We now know that the defendant breached a duty to the plaintiff, and we're assuming plaintiff suffered an injury. The last step is to prove a sufficient causal connection between defendant's actions and the injury the plaintiff suffered. To prove proximate cause in WA, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant's breach of a duty was (1) the actual cause of plaintiff's injury, and (2) the injury was a foreseeable consequence of breaching the particular duty owed to plaintiff. If the injury was not a foreseeable consequence, the negligence claim falls apart.
Ted is driving his truck when he ignores a stop light and plows into the side of a large delivery truck carrying fireworks. This causes an explosion which reverberates several miles from the site of the auto accident. A factory several miles away feels the explosion. A pipe in the factory bursts, creating a powerful jet stream that hits an employee on the side of the head, causing them to fall and hit their head on the concrete floor.
We know that Ted's breach of his duty to obey the stop sign is the actual cause of the head injuries the factory employee suffers. Except for Ted running the stop light, none of this would have happened. But was the injury a foreseeable result of running a stop sign? Was hitting a delivery truck in the intersection a foreseeable consequence? Absolutely. Any reasonable person knows that there's a serious risk of hitting another vehicle if they disobey traffic signals. However, an explosion leading to a freak accident several miles away is not a typical result of running a stop light. If a jury finds the factory injury was not foreseeable, then there is no negligence claim against Ted.
To be clear, the proximate cause element is not about the extent of the injuries, but rather that an injury occurred. If an injury was a foreseeable product of defendant's breach of a duty, the defendant is responsible for the full extent of the injuries.
If you have more questions about negligence in Vancouver, Washington, please contact In-house | On-site to speak with a Vancouver WA attorney.