Negligence cases like automobile accidents seem straight forward to most lay people. If a car is sitting at a red light and gets hit from behind by another car, one would easily say that the person that caused the crash was negligent. But what does that word “negligent” really mean in the context of a law suit?
In trial, a judge will define negligence:
“Negligence is the failure to use reasonable care, which is the care that a reasonably careful person would use under like circumstances. Negligence is doing something that a reasonably careful person would not do under like circumstances or failing to do something that a reasonably careful person would do under like circumstances.”
So, negligence is the failure to be reasonably careful. In the context of this jury instruction , the judge tells that jury that, as the triers (ultimate deciders) of the facts in the case, they must look at the evidence presented at trial and determine, based on this definition, whether anyone was negligent. Factually, that means the jury must decide how much each person was at fault, or negligent, in causing an injury. The jury may find that the Defendant (the person being sued), the Plaintiff (the person suing) or even other third parties were the cause of the injury, but must allocate the percentages of negligence up to 100%. For example, in a rear end collision most of the time it’s 100% the Defendant’s negligence- especially if the Plaintiff was just sitting at a red light and got hit from behind. But intersectional collisions or sideswipe situations or chain reaction crashes on the highway may be more complicated.
For example, Steve sues John for going through a red light and hitting him, causing him $100,000 in damage (including bodily injury). The jury may find that even though John ran a red light and hit Steve, at the time Steve was speeding and that speeding contributed to causing the collision. Therefore, the jury may analyze the evidence and decide that John was 75% responsible for the collision and Steve was 25% responsible. If the jury awards Steve the $100,000, the Court will reduce that award by the amount that Steve himself was responsible for the collision, and reduce the $100,000 in damage to $75,000 to reflect Steve’s 25% responsibility for the collision. Judgment will then be entered against John for $75,000.
The “level of convincing” the jury uses to make its decision is called the “burden of proof.” In a criminal case, where a person could go to prison, is very high. A prosecutor in a criminal case must convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. However, in a civil case, where only money and no one’s liberty is at stake, the standard is much lower. In the case above, John must prove his case to the jury by a preponderance of the evidence. This means that he must convince them that, more probably than not, or as some say, 50% plus a little, that John was negligent and caused the damages.
How an attorney actually proves negligence and convinces the jury of the rightfulness of his client’s claim is complicated and takes years of training. This is why seeking the help of an experienced, well-trained attorney is very important.