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What must be proven, generally, in a negligence case?

Negligence is a significant subject in personal injury law, and the negligent operation of a motor vehicle is common within the personal injury context. Generally, negligence occurs when a party or parties breach a duty owed to another party or parties.

Suppose, for example, that John is driving on a roadway in Massachusetts, and he comes to a full stop at a red light. Suddenly, Diane, who was driving behind John, strikes John’s vehicle, causing John to suffer injuries to his knee, back, and neck. John has a cardiac condition and his blood pressure rises, placing him in a dire cardiac situation. An ambulance arrives 55 minutes later. On the way to the hospital with John, the ambulance is hit by a truck, and John is injured on his left knee. At the hospital, John’s physician performs non-emergency surgery on his knee to evaluate his knee. After the surgery, a nurse closes John’s wound and leaves medical supplies in his knee, ultimately causing his leg to develop gangrene and be amputated. One year later, John is using his prosthetic leg and falls down stairs, injuring his hand due to a defect in the design of the leg.

Back to the beginning: Is Diane liable for the loss of John’s leg? Is she liable for the injury to his hand?

In Massachusetts, the law requires that for John to prove that Diane is liable for the loss of his leg and injury to his hand, John must prove that: (1) Diane owed a duty to John; (2) Diane breached that duty; (3) Diane was the actual cause of John’s injury; (4) Diane was the proximate cause of the injury; and (5); John suffered damages.

The first step of the analysis is to determine whether Diane owned a duty to John. Massachusetts courts hold that generally any foreseeable person is owed a duty by a defendant. John is a foreseeable person to Diane, because she should know that while driving on a roadway, other occupants in vehicles would be sharing the common roadway with her. Therefore, John is a foreseeable plaintiff. As such, Diane owed a duty to John to operate her motor vehicle with reasonable care and to follow the rules of the road.

The second step is to determine whether Diane breached the duty owed to John for her to act as a reasonable driver. The facts establish that John hit Diane. Absent additional facts, because Diane hit John, she breached her duty to drive with the due care required of a driver on a Massachusetts roadway.

The third step requires an analysis as to whether Diane was the actual cause of John’s injuries. To do so, we ask: “but for” Diane’s impact to John, would John have lost his leg? and “but for” Diane’s impact to John, would John have been injured on his hand? The answer is that “but for” Diane’s hitting John, John would not have lost his leg and he would not have injured in hand. Therefore, the car accident is the actual cause of John’s injuries.

Step four is a complex aspect of this hypothetical and many negligence cases because even if a cause is an actual cause of injuries, the same cause many not be the proximate, or foreseeable, cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. Here, if a court determines that the surgery to John’s knee and the left behind medical supplies were foreseeable results of the car accident, then Diane could be liable. However, if the surgery to John’s knee was not foreseeable, then Diane would not be the proximate cause.

The answer to this foreseeable test for the amputation of John’s leg affects the analysis with regard to John’s hand as well. If a Massachusetts court determines that the surgery to John’s knee was not foreseeable, then the court would hold that falling down stairs with a prosthetic leg is also not foreseeable. This test of foreseeability is a test of fairness, a test of whether the law wants to hold someone accountable for future consequences. The idea is that if the injury is foreseeable, the law wants the defendant to be held accountable for such injuries.

Finally, Massachusetts courts assess damages. Massachusetts courts assess both economic and noneconomic damages and assess damages for John as he is on the date of the injury, including emotional distress damages.

Like many negligence matters, the facts are crucial to determine the duties owed, whether a breach occurred, the cause of the injury, and the damages. Personal injury cases are often fact dependent and complex. They require an astute legal professional to handle the matter in a technical fashion. If you have any questions about personal injury matters, call us for a free consultation at 617-657-HURT (4878) or fill out our contact form here.

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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