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The Four Elements of Negligence Claims

Driving car stopping front of scared female pedestrian, human factor, accident

Some negligence claims can appear obvious at first blush. For instance, say a drunk driver hits a pedestrian. The pedestrian obviously has a claim against the driver for any injury they sustain. But the simple cases obscure the underlying legal elements involved. More complex cases may involve factors that undermine one or more of the basic elements of the negligence claim. Below, we discuss the four elements of any negligence claim and how they might operate in a typical personal injury case. If you’ve been injured because of someone else’s negligence in Indiana, call an Indianapolis personal injury lawyer for advice and assistance.


In order to file a personal injury claim, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant owed some sort of duty to the plaintiff. The duty can be general–such as the duty every driver owes to everyone else on the road to follow the traffic laws and generally drive safely–or specific, such as the duty a doctor owes to a patient. Different parties owe different duties that require specific levels of care. A doctor owes a higher duty of care to a patient, for example, than a random person on the street owes to a stranger. The normal standard of care without any special duty is generally stated as “that degree of care which is exercised by ordinarily prudent persons under the same or similar circumstances.”


To sustain a claim for negligence, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant breached the duty of care owed to the plaintiff. When we say a person acted negligently, we are saying they breached the duty of care we expect of a person in that situation. When a doctor fails to conduct a routine test or botches a surgery, they are committing medical negligence–they are failing to act as a reasonable doctor would under the circumstances, breaching their duty of care to the patient. When a truck driver speeds aggressively and unsafely, they are breaching the duty of care truckers and other drivers owe to everyone on the road to drive safely and reasonably. Stated differently, they are driving negligently.

To prove ordinary negligence, such as in a trucking accident or wrongful death case, the plaintiff must show that the defendant breached their duty of care by not acting how a reasonable person would act under the same or similar circumstances. The driver violated traffic safety laws, the property owner caused a spill and failed to clean it up or warn guests, etc.


To recover compensation in a personal injury lawsuit, the plaintiff must establish that they suffered “injury” as a result of the defendant’s conduct. Injury can take the form of financial harm, physical harm, or even psychological harm, depending upon the circumstances. Plaintiffs cannot sue just because someone violated a duty owed to them if that breach did not actually cause them any harm. If someone runs a stop sign and bumps into a pedestrian while going two miles per hour, causing no actual physical injury, the pedestrian probably does not have a legal claim.

In the case of a trucking accident, on the other hand, the plaintiff can demonstrate injury by pointing to the damage done to their vehicle as well as broken bones, traumatic brain injury, and other physical harms. Medical bills incurred as a result of those injuries count as compensable injuries, as does the psychological harm caused by the plaintiff’s pain and suffering and other emotional damage. The extent of the plaintiff’s injuries in a car or truck accident case is a large factor in determining the amount of compensation the plaintiff is due. The wrongful death of an accident victim is, of course, another form of injury.


Finally, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant’s breach of care actually caused the plaintiff to suffer the injury they sustained. If a truck driver blows through a stop sign but entirely misses the plaintiff, and the plaintiff is then struck by lightning, the plaintiff would not have a claim against the defendant; there was duty and breach (negligent driving), as well as injury, but the plaintiff’s injury was not caused by the defendant’s conduct.

Causation is not always as simple as it seems. If a bartender serves drinks to a drunk patron, and the patron then gets into a car crash, is it the bartender’s fault? By one assessment, the bartender’s actions “caused” the crash–without the drinks, the driver would have been (more) sober and potentially avoided the crash. On the other hand, the connection may be too diminished to call it “causation.” For example, what if the driver’s friend invited them to the bar that night, pulling the driver away from a quiet night in? Should the friend be liable for the driver’s own poor choices?

A seasoned personal injury lawyer can help you assess who may be liable for your injuries, including all parties whose actions can be said to have legally caused your injuries.

Call for Dedicated and Thorough Help With Your Indianapolis Personal Injury Claim

If you or someone you love has been hurt or killed due to another party’s negligence in Indiana, contact the professional and accomplished Indianapolis personal injury lawyers at Lee Cossell & Feagley, LLP for a free consultation on your case at 316-631-5151.

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