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What is Gross Negligence in Massachusetts?

if you been involved in a personal injury case, you might find yourself, for the first time, researching the elements of negligence. Not really fully understanding the definition of negligence, many people initially characterize behavior which is particularly careless under the classification of "gross negligence." However, gross negligence is a legal term with a specific definition.

Historically in Massachusetts, proving gross negligence was a very important step in an accident in which the injured party was a passenger in the vehicle, rather than the driver. But that's no longer the rule. Passengers in motor vehicle accidents can recover under the theory of ordinary negligence today.

If you are currently involved in a wrongful death case, then the gross negligence issue is a significant one. That's because if you prove the negligent party was grossly negligent in a wrongful death action, their gross negligence may give rise to punitive damages.

Punitive damages are damages assessed with the purpose of punishing the negligent party. So, they need not bear close relation to the actual economic and noneconomic damages of the injured party. If a party is injured in an accident which was caused by the negligence of another, the injured party is entitled to recover damages for his or her medical expenses, lost wages, related out-of-pocket expenses, and suffering, and loss of enjoyment. But, the totality of all these damages may not have any deterring effect to the negligent party. Let's say that the negligent party is a large corporation, and a few hundred thousand dollars simply will not deter future similar behavior. In ordinary negligence cases, punitive damages are not available. So in those cases, that corporation may simply not be deterred against future similar conduct.

However, in wrongful death cases, punitive damages are available for the purpose of punishing the negligent party. In our last example, although the damages, not including punitive damages, may only arise $200,000, the company responsible for the damages may be a billion-dollar company. In order to properly punish the billion-dollar company, a much higher figure must be assessed against that company and form of punitive damages.

Remember, we're largely talking about wrongful death cases here, and the injured party would still have to prove gross negligence. In that event, punitive damages may be assessed against that company in the favor of the plaintiff.

So what exactly is gross negligence? Let's discuss. The best definition I know for gross negligence is found in the case of Altman v. Aronson. In that Massachusetts SupremeJudicial Court case from 1919, the Court stated the definitions for both negligence and gross negligence.

To understand the definition of gross negligence, you must first understand the definition for negligence. The court defines negligence as the failure of a responsible person, either by omission or by action, to exercise that degree of care, vigilance and forethought which, in the discharge of the duty been resting on him, the person of ordinary caution and prudence ought to exercise under the particular circumstances.

In contrast, the court defined gross negligence as being substantially and appreciably higher in magnitude than ordinary negligence. The court noted," it is materially more want of care than constitutes simple inadvertence. It is an act or omission respecting legal duty of an aggravated character as distinguished from a mere failure to exercise ordinary care. It is very great negligence, or the absence of slight diligence, or the want of even scant care. It amounts to indifference to present legal duty and to utter forgetfulness of legal obligations so far as other persons may be affected."

Gross negligence is a significantly higher burden to prove than ordinary negligence. Essentially, you must prove that the other party took no care or almost no care in acting reasonably given the circumstances.

If you believe you have a case in which the parties acted with gross negligence, particularly in a wrongful death case, please consult a personal injury lawyer with the knowledge and experience to assess the facts and determine whether there is gross negligence present. Our office is one such firm, and we are happy to discuss your case with you.

The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.

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