Understanding The Meaning of Negligence 

A lot of people wonder what the difference is between a plain old accident that could happen to anyone and and accident that occurs because someone was legally negligent. This is a central part of personal injury law. When is someone “at fault?”

One of the best and most famous examples is the McDonald’s hot coffee case. Back in 1994, Stella Liebeck was awarded a record amount in a suit against McDonald’s.

McDonalds CoffeeMany were outraged by the suit and denounced it as frivolous. Liebeck was maligned as being greedy and irresponsible and accused manipulating the legal system in a manner that would create a dangerous precedent for future cases.

Indeed, there have been many copycat cases in the years following. Some were worthy of being called frivolous; others were not.

It all depends on the definition of “negligence.”

The Five Elements of Negligence

Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute defines negligence like this:

“A failure to behave with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances.”

It goes on to outline five elements that are required to establish a case of legal negligence. They are:

  • The existence of a legal duty to exercise reasonable care
  • A failure to exercise reasonable care
  • Physical harm caused by the negligent conduct
  • Physical harm in the form of actual damages
  • Proximate cause, a showing that the harm is within the scope of liability

In the case of Liebeck v. McDonald’s, a recent documentary revealed that it was not simply a matter of a greedy woman manipulating the legal system. The restaurant was habitually heating their coffee to excessive, unsafe temperatures to provide customers with piping hot beverages. Ms. Liebeck, however, had no idea that the drink she was holding was at a temperature that could scald her. When a sudden movement within her car caused her to spill the coffee, she found this out the hard way.

The injury left permanent scars on her legs. An elderly woman, Liebeck recounts the abuse she endured from popular opinion while trying to receive compensation for the medical care of her burn wounds, which were the fault of a store overstepping food preparation procedures and not being mindful of customer safety.

Every State is Different

It’s important to know when pursuing a case regarding negligence that states award damages differently. The state of Washington recognizes the Pure Comparative Fault Rule, which allows a damaged party to “recover” even when partially responsible for the incident. The recovery is awarded in proportion to the damaged party’s degree of fault — meaning that if the plaintiff was 15 percent responsible, he or she could only be awarded 85 percent of the total value determined.

businessman blamingUnderstanding different joint and several liability laws, as well as different comparative fault rules, is critical to evaluating and pursuing cases of negligence. What’s more: there are many exceptions within each state with regard to whether the particular fault allocation is applicable to a particular cause of action.

About Perey Law Group

If you feel you are the victim of negligence — whether within a professional setting, a business or outside environment, or within your own home — the legal team at Perey Law Group is ready to help you determine your rights and fight for the compensation you deserve. Call us at 206.443.7600 or fill out the form on the right side of this page.