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What Is the Difference Between Gross Negligence & Negligence

What Is the Difference Between Gross Negligence & Negligence?

The difference between gross negligence and negligence is important to any personal injury claim. If the court finds a defendant liable for gross negligence, their victim may be able to recover more compensation for their injuries. Gross negligence generally represents more intentional and reckless behavior than that typical of ordinary negligence. Legally speaking, the concepts of gross negligence vs. negligence can be subtle but are essential to understand.  

The Legal Definition of Negligence

The terms negligence and ordinary negligence are often used interchangeably. Negligence happens when a person fails to take reasonable steps to ensure they do not endanger the safety or well-being of another. If an individual’s negligent behavior causes an injury, they are responsible for paying compensation to their victim. To prove ordinary negligence, a plaintiff must show that: 

  • The defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff;
  • The defendant breached their duty of care;
  • The defendant’s breach caused the plaintiff’s injury; and
  • The plaintiff suffered recoverable damages.

A plaintiff must prove each of these elements separately to win in court.

Duty of Care

A person has a duty of care when they have a legal obligation to protect another from harm. Generally, we all have a legal responsibility to avoid acting in a way that could foreseeably cause injury to another. An example of this general duty is that we all have an obligation to drive safely to avoid harming others on the road. Some duties arise from special relationships. One case in which a special duty arises is in the relationship between doctors and their patients.

Breach of Duty

Once a plaintiff establishes a duty, they must show that the defendant’s actions breached the duty of care. The courts use a “reasonable person” standard to determine whether a defendant breached their duty. The reasonable person standard asks whether a reasonable and prudent person would have acted in the same manner as the defendant. A reasonable and prudent person is a person who always uses ordinary care when approaching any situation. This person is always aware of their surroundings and takes common sense steps to avoid harming others. For example, a reasonable and prudent person follows all traffic laws and drives defensively to avoid causing an accident.

If a person failed to act as a reasonable and prudent person would have, they would have breached their duty of care.

Cause Of the Injury

The third element a plaintiff must prove in court is that the defendant’s negligent act caused the plaintiff’s injuries. There are two ways in which the plaintiff must establish causation. The defendant must be both the actual cause and the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.  

The defendant is the actual cause of an injury when the victim’s injury would not have happened “but for” the defendant’s negligent actions. Essentially this standard means that if the defendant had not acted negligently, the plaintiff would not have been injured. The only reason the injury happened was that the defendant acted or failed to act in a reasonable and prudent way. 

The defendant is the proximate cause of an injury when the victim’s injury should have been foreseeable by a reasonable and prudent person. For example, if a speeding driver crashes into another car and injures an occupant, the driver is the proximate cause of the injury. However, complications arise if the ambulance gets in another accident on the way to the hospital. In this case, the speeding driver is likely not the proximate cause of injuries caused by the ambulance crash. The second crash is an intervening factor that a reasonable and prudent person would probably not foresee. 

If someone’s negligence is both the actual and proximate cause of an injury, they are liable for the damage they caused.    

Victim Suffered an Actual Injury

The final element a plaintiff must show to establish ordinary negligence is that they suffered an actual injury. There are two primary categories of injuries a plaintiff suffers. First, economic injuries arise when the victim suffers a financial loss. These injuries include medical bills, loss of time at work, property damage, and other financial losses. Second, non-economic injuries arise from losses that are harder to quantify. These losses include pain and suffering, severe inconvenience, and emotional distress.

The Legal Definition of Gross Negligence

A plaintiff must prove all the elements of ordinary negligence for gross negligence to be considered. In addition, a plaintiff must show that the defendant acted in a way that was intentional or showed a reckless disregard for the safety of others. 

If a jury finds a defendant liable for gross negligence, the defendant may be able to recover punitive damages, which are awarded to punish the wrongdoer and discourage others from acting in a similar reckless way. Further, a defendant who is liable for gross negligence will no longer be able to raise some immunities as a defense. For example, if a state agent injures you during a response to a wildfire, but it is only due to ordinary negligence, the agent will be immune to liability. However, if the state agent acted in a grossly negligent way, you may be able to win a negligence claim against them.  

What Is the Difference? 

The difference between somebody who causes an accident while drunk driving and one who causes an accident through absent-minded speeding illustrates gross negligence vs. ordinary negligence. In the example of a drunk driver, the person responsible for the accident consciously chose to get behind the wheel while intoxicated. This choice was intentional and showed a reckless disregard for others on the road. In the case of someone accidentally speeding, their actions were negligent, but no conscious choice was involved. The speeder also did not act in a way that demonstrated a reckless disregard for others on the road.

We Can Help

If you suffered an injury due to someone else’s negligence, we here at Sloat, Nicholson & Hoover, P.C. can help. With over 100 years of handling accident cases in Colorado, our attorneys can assist you with your negligence claims. Sloat, Nicholson & Hoover has recovered over 100 million dollars for our clients throughout our over 30 years of practice. At Sloat, Nicholson & Hoover, we will focus on your claims so you can focus on your recovery. Contact us today.

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