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What is the main element of negligence?

elements of negligence

What Are the Main Elements of Negligence?

Most people understand the basic concept of negligence. However, legally speaking, negligence is a technical term with a specific definition that slightly varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. No matter which state you are in, it typically refers to injuries or deaths caused by someone who should have done something differently. In Virginia, the definition of negligence consists of four main elements — duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages.



There can be no claim of negligence without a corresponding duty, such as a duty to act or to refrain from engaging in a particular action to prevent someone else from being harmed. In many cases, duties are established by way of statute and regulation.

duty of care

For example, homeowners in many locations have a duty to keep their sidewalks free from ice and snow. County and municipal laws often specifically detail the scope of the duty.

In addition, state and city traffic laws establish duties for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

In some personal injury cases, determining who has a duty is not so straightforward. Often, more than one party has a duty, which typically results in a lawsuit against multiple parties. If two cars are drag racing and hit a pedestrian, both racers would likely be on the hook for damages.

Breach of Duty

A breach of duty is a failure to act or refrain from acting when a reasonably prudent person would have done so. In other words, it is a choice to do something that should not have been done or not do something that should have been done.

For example, an apartment building that fails to provide security for the entrance to the building is in breach. What exactly counts as adequate security may or may not be defined specifically in a law or statute. If it’s not, it would likely be a question for the jury to decide.

The specific question to answer in this case would be, “What would a reasonably prudent apartment manager or owner do in the same situation? What security measures would they have installed?”

In many instances, breaches of duty may occur for a while without consequences. They are like ticking time bombs waiting to explode. But until they do, there is no cause of action.

For example, a drunk driver is obviously in breach of their duty of care toward others on the road. But just because they are in breach does not mean they are liable for anything outside criminal traffic laws. Their breach must cause some sort of compensable damages.


Causation is the essential link between an injurious incident and a party’s behavior. Proving it exists is necessary to collect compensation. Depending on the case, it may be more complex than many would imagine.

For example, causation in medical malpractice cases is complex, often much more so than traffic cases. However, some medical malpractice cases are straightforward, and some car accident cases are not so much. It all depends on how the incident occurred.

Often, more than one cause may exist. In this case, the parties may fight to reduce their percentage of the liability.

For example, one of the drag racers from above might argue that their brakes failed due to a manufacturing defect or that the other driver bears more responsibility for the accident. If successful, they can significantly reduce their portion of the responsibility for the damages.


To recover compensation for an incident caused by a breach of a duty of care, you must also demonstrate that you suffered some sort of verifiable harm.

For example, if you slip and fall at the corner grocery without experiencing an injury, you have no claim for compensation. If, however, you are injured in the fall, you do have a claim if it leads to certain compensable damages, such as:

  • Medical costs
  • Lost income
  • Associated expenses
  • Pain and suffering
  • Mental anguish
  • Loss of enjoyment of life

Keep in mind that in Virginia, emotional injury claims must involve a physical injury or reckless or intentional conduct. If you are in a bad car crash that causes you to suffer from depression, you can’t seek compensation unless you also suffer a physical injury.

However, if the car crash was the fault of a drunk driver, you could then sue them without a physical injury because drunk driving is reckless, at the very least.

In cases where death is the result, other damages are available. They include compensation for funeral and burial costs, loss of guidance, and loss of financial support.

Speak With an Experienced Personal Injury Lawyer Today

If you have questions about negligence, consider speaking with an experienced personal injury lawyer for answers. At the Joel Bieber Firm, we offer free consultation for potential clients. Call our office for an appointment today!

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