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The Element of Intent in Personal Injury Law

Imagine that a woman strikes a man with her motor vehicle. The man survives the accident and files a lawsuit against the woman for her negligence. The woman alleges that she did not intend to strike the man with her car. She alleges that the incident was an accident and as such, she is not negligent. The woman argues that because the event was an accident she should be relieved of any liability. Should the woman be permitted to succeed with her argument? Of course not—while the element of intent is missing, we would look to fault liability, or negligence, to find the woman liable.

Imagine instead that a woman and man are walking down a street. The woman strikes the man, but this time, she does so with the intent to strike the man. Should the man be permitted to pursue a civil personal injury action against the woman for his injuries?

In Massachusetts, cases as described above are civil law cases, although they may also be pursued in criminal law as well. The first example involves the legal concept of negligence, which is defined as a failure to exhibit the level of care that an ordinary, reasonable, or prudent person or entity would have exercised in the same or similar circumstances. Negligence is an unintended mistake or accident. Someone with good intentions could still be liable for an incident or accident. The intention of an action is not as important as the question of what a reasonable person would do within the same or similar circumstances.

To succeed in a motor vehicle case of negligence against a defendant, a plaintiff must prove the following: (1) the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff to operate the motor vehicle as a reasonable person on the road with other drivers and pedestrians; (2) the defendant breached the duty of care owed to the plaintiff to operate the motor vehicle as a reasonable person; (3) the defendant was the actual and proximate cause of injuries caused form the breach; and (4) the plaintiff was injured or suffered damages as a result of the breach.

The second example is about a battery case, an intentional tort. The intent matters in this example. To prevail with an intentional tort case, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant intended to commit the act. If the woman fell as she walked down the street and accidently tripped and hit the man, then she will not necessarily be liable for an intentional tort, because she did not intend for the action—hitting the man—to occur. Even if the woman intended to hit someone else but hit the man instead, she could still be liable under a theory of transferred intent.

In the motor vehicle action above, the woman cannot claim that she should be relieved of any liability under her theory that she did not intend to cause the accident. In fact, intention could help to establish liability: if the woman intended to press hard on the gas, for example, then the plaintiff could establish her negligence. There is little room in personal injury law to argue that a defendant should not be negligent if the defendant did not intend to be negligent or intend to cause the harm that was caused by the defendant. To prevail in his case against the woman, the man would argue that the woman owed him a duty to act as a reasonable motor vehicle operator; that she breached her duty (regardless of her intent to do so); that she was the actual and proximate cause of the breach; and that he suffered damages, such as injuries to his body, his property, or lost wages from work.

Imagine a different scenario: a landowner places a trap to catch creatures on his property. The landowner also intends to place the trap for humans who trespass on his property. One evening, a man trespasses on the landowner’s land and is injured by the trap. The question is: should the landowner be held to be liable for injuries sustained by the trespasser? In this circumstance, ordinarily, a trespasser is not owed the same duty of care as the woman in the previous example owed to the pedestrian. Because the landowner placed a trap on his property with the intention to cause harm, however, a court could find that the landowner’s willful, wanton, or reckless behavior establishes liability.

Massachusetts law provides that generally and legally, one person does not owe a duty to another absent some sort of special relationship or some other exception. In personal injury matters, the concept of intent does not necessarily provide any substantial defense to a defendant who was negligent, unless the issue is about an intentional tort.

If you have any questions about motor vehicle accidents, negligence matters, personal injury law, tort law, intentional torts, damages, or other legal incidents, please contact our offices. You may schedule a free consultation with an experienced professional today. Call 978-225-9030 during business hours or complete a contact form online. Do not delay. Our experienced team would work for 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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