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4 Elements of a Negligence Claim (and more)

Under Colorado law, there are four elements to a claim for negligence:

  1. The existence of a legal duty to the plaintiff;
  2. The defendant breached that duty;
  3. The plaintiff was injured; and,
  4. The defendant’s breach of duty caused the injury.

Raleigh v. Performance Plumbing & Heating, 130 P.3d 1011, 1015 (Colo. 2006). For a plaintiff to succeed at trial, every one of these elements must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not) and then the plaintiff must prove the amount of their damages.

 

4 Elements of Negligence

 

(1) Duty

In plain terms, the “duty” element requires that the defendant actually owe a legal duty to the plaintiff. For example, you generally do not owe a duty to be friendly to others; however, you do owe a duty to act with reasonable care so that you do not physically injure others.

 

(2) Causation

The “causation” element generally relates to whether the defendant’s actions hurt the plaintiff. Many times, it is not clear as to who or what injured the plaintiff. Sometimes it is clear that the defendant injured the plaintiff, but it is not entirely clear that all of the plaintiff’s injuries were caused by the defendant.

 

(3) Breach

Breach is simple to explain but difficult to prove. If the defendant owed a duty and did not fulfill that duty then he or she is in breach.

 

(4) Damages

Finally, the element of “damages” concerns the amount of monetary loss the plaintiff has suffered. This element is almost always in dispute with defendants arguing that the plaintiff suffered no injury or suffered minor injuries and the plaintiff arguing the opposite.

 

Basic & Useful Definitions

  • The dictionary that attorneys use to define terms, Black’s Law Dictionary, defines negligence as: “The failure to exercise the standard of care that a reasonably prudent person would have exercised in a similar situation.”
  • A related term, “gross negligence,” is a type of negligence where the defendant lacks “even slight diligence or care.” 
  • When a plaintiff asserting a claim for negligence is also negligent themselves, the law refers to this as “contributory negligence” or “comparative negligence.”
    • “Contributory negligence” is defined as a “plaintiff’s own negligence that played a part in causing the plaintiff’s injury and that is significant enough (in a few jurisdictions) to bar the plaintiff from recovering damages.”
    • “Comparative negligence” is defined as a “plaintiff’s own negligence that proportionally reduces the damages recoverable from a defendant.”
  • In some instances, the law will presume that someone is negligent under certain circumstances. This is called “negligence per se” and is defined as “Negligence established as a matter of law” or, negligence that arises “from a statutory violation.”
 

What is “Reasonable Care?”

Colorado’s pattern jury instructions define “reasonable care” as “that degree of care which a reasonably careful person would use under the same or similar circumstances.” Note that it is not defined as “any” person, it is defined as a “reasonably careful” person. This is often the most difficult and contentious issue that the jury will decide at trial: whether the defendant acted “reasonably” and with “reasonable care.”
 
 

What About Foreseeability? Is it a Requirement?

A defendant is only liable for negligence if their actions resulted in a “foreseeable” injury. Under Colorado law, an injury is foreseeable “if a reasonably careful person, under the same or similar circumstances, would have anticipated that injury to a person in the plaintiff’s situation might result from the defendant’s conduct.” It is not the precise injury that the plaintiff suffered that needs to be foreseeable, it is enough that an injury is foreseeable. In law school, students often study a case called Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co., which is a case out of New York that was the first to thoroughly analyze what sorts of things are foreseeable or unforeseeable. The same principles discussed in this case are still used today in Colorado.

 

What is the Statute of Limitations for Negligence Claims?

The statute of limitations for negligence claims in Colorado is two yearsSee C.R.S.§ 13-80-102(1); see also Morrison v. Goff, 91 P.3d 1050, 1053 (Colo. 2004) (“In Colorado, the statute of limitations bars negligence actions brought more than two years after the action accrues.”). “To determine when an action accrues, the General Assembly has adopted a form of the ‘discovery rule,’ which states that an action accrues ‘on the date both the injury and its cause are known or should have been known by the exercise of reasonable diligence.'” Goff, 91 P.3d at 1053 (emphasis added); see also C.R.S. § 13-80-108(1).

 

Learn all about the elements of claims for unjust enrichment and breach of contract.

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