Following a trucking accident, motorcycle accident, or other car accident, the personal injury victim will pursue a claim against the at-fault party for causing his/her injuries. Assuming the at-fault party was not acting intentionally, the victim will pursue his/her claim under a theory of liability known as “negligence.” While the term seems simple enough to understand, California law defines it in a very specific way, and certain elements within it must be proved for the accident victim to be successful in his/her claim. Failure to prove even one of the elements renders the claim defeated. According to California Jury Instructions 400, the accident victim must show that 1) the defendant was negligent, 2) the victim was harmed, and 3) the defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing the personal injury victim’s harm. The obvious question is what does “negligence” mean? California Jury Instructions 401 defines negligence as the failure to use reasonable care to prevent harm to another. The instruction continues, “A person can be negligent by acting or failing to act. A person is negligent if he or she does something that a reasonably careful person would not do in the same situation or fails to do something that a reasonably careful person would do in the same situation.” As we can see, negligence is a standard imposed upon all people to act as a reasonable person would in a particular situation. The third element of a negligence cause of action requires that the victim prove that the negligent act on part of the at-fault party was a “substantial factor” in causing his/her harm. The term ‘substantial’ does not mean the factor is large, or the only factor, or the most important factor. ‘Substantial,’ when it comes to negligence, is anything but these commonly assumed definitions. In fact, it could be argued that the word ‘substantial’ should not even be used in the language of the third element, since its definition has little to nothing to do with our common understanding of the term; and the use of it, at first glance, may be misleading. California Jury Instructions 430 defines “substantial” as follows: ”A substantial factor in causing harm is a factor that a reasonable person would consider to have contributed to the harm. It must be more than a remote or trivial factor. It does not have to be the only cause of harm.” Thus, as long as the factor is not remote or trivial, it can be considered substantial. The simple test used to determine whether a particular act or omission that causes a personal injury is substantial is known as the ‘but for’ test. The simple question to be asked under this test is: but for the defendant’s act (or omission), would the victim have been injured? If the answer is yes, then the act was a substantial factor in the injury and the third element is satisfied. This cause of action should not be confused with negligence per se (see Dog Bites/Attacks and Other Injuries: Understanding Negligence Per Se for a brief discussion on negligence per se requirements). If someone else’s negligence has caused you or a loved one to suffer personal injuries, such as those resulting from a car, truck or motorcycle accident, contact The Steven Dhillon Law Firm for a consultation.
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