Four Elements of Negligence in Law

Negligence is an area of tort law dealing with situations in which the tortfeasor (the person responsible for the act or harm) does not intend to cause harm or create a situation that causes harm OR he does not believe harm will occur if he performs -- or does not perform -- some act. His action or inaction merely creates the risk of harm.

The Risk Must Be Foreseeable By A Reasonable Person

Importantly, the risk of harm or consequence must be foreseeable by a reasonable person. In other words, if a reasonable person was to perform -- or not perform -- the same action, would that person anticipate the resulting harm or other consequence as a possible outcome and do something to prevent it or protect against it?

The Four Elements of Negligence

In order to prove negligence, the plaintiff must prove that all four elements of negligence were present:

  1. Duty of Care: Did the defendant owe a duty of care to the plaintiff?
  2. Breach: Did the defendant breach the duty of care that was owed?
  3. Injury/Damages: Did the plaintiff suffer a legally recognizable injury or damage?
  4. Causation: Did the plaintiff's breach cause the injury or damages?

All four elements must be present in order to prove negligence in a courtroom.

A Little Deeper Dive into the Four Elements

The summary above may communicate the heart of the four elements but let's take a closer look at them.  They can each become more complex in their own ways -- certainly well beyond the scope of these explanations.

Duty of Care

The duty of care occurs between two people or persons when a situation calls for those involved to exercise reasonable care.  If those who are involved fail to act reasonably under the duty of care, there may be grounds for a negligence case.

Take this scenario as an example, a public transit bus driver was driving down the street and as it crossed through an intersection the bus struck a pedestrian.  The initial question that must be determined is whether the defendant, the bus driver, owed a duty to the pedestrian. If due to a distraction the bus driver ran a red light and struck the pedestrian, then the court of law may be more likely to find that the defendant owed a duty to the pedestrian.  Alternatively, if the stoplight was green and the pedestrian freely walked into the bus’s path, then the court of law may be less likely to find that the defendant owed a duty to the pedestrian.

Breach of Duty

In addition to proving a duty of care, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant breached their duty of care.  Breach of duty occurs when the defendant fails to exercise reasonable care to the plaintiff.  In continuation with the scenario above, the court of law would determine whether or not the defendant acted within reasonable care when approaching the intersection.


Together with the proof of a duty of care and a breach of said duty, the plaintiff must prove they were harmed due to the defendant’s failure to exercise reasonable care.  Additionally, the defendant's failure to exercise reasonable care must result in actual damages to the plaintiff.  Whether the damages were an injury to the plaintiff or damage to the plaintiff's property, the damages suffered must also be legally recognizable.


Lastly, the plaintiff will have to prove that the breach of duty caused them harm.  For clarification, if it had not been for the defendant’s actions or lack thereof, the plaintiff would not have been injured.  In this case, the pedestrian from the bus example would not have suffered bodily injuries if the bus driver had not been distracted from the road.

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