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WHEN DOES A MISTAKE BECOME NEGLIGENCE?


Nov 21, 2017

If you have been injured in an accident due to the negligence of another, California law may entitle you to recover damages as compensation — but the success of your claim may hinge on whether the defendant’s acts did, in fact, rise to the level of negligence.

More fundamentally, it’s important to ask: what is the difference between a mistake and negligence?  Suppose that a defendant-driver hits a pothole and loses control of his vehicle, thus causing an accident.  Is the accident a consequence of negligent conduct, or is it simply a mistake?  This distinction is crucial to personal injury litigation, as mere mistakes may not rise to the level of negligence.  

Let’s explore the nature of negligence and standard of care in the context of California injury law.

Negligence and the Standard of Care

According to the California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 401, negligence is defined as the failure to use reasonable care to prevent harm.  A person will be deemed negligent if he acts in such a way — given the circumstances — that a reasonably careful person would not have acted.  Put more succinctly: the court will find negligence where a defendant violates the standard of care and causes harm as a result.

In short, the difference between a mistake and negligence is whether the standard of care has been violated.

Let’s return to the pothole example above.  Suppose that the pothole was not readily visible to a reasonably careful person such that they could avoid the pothole.  When the defendant-driver hit the pothole, he lost control over their vehicle.  If a reasonably careful driver would also have lost control over his vehicle under the same circumstances, then the defendant simply made an understandable, though unfortunate mistake — he was not negligent because he did not violate the standard of care.

Understanding what a “reasonably careful person” would have done in the same situation is an issue that strikes at the heart of the standard of care.  The standard of care can vary significantly depending on the circumstances.  Application of due care is inherently situational according to the California Supreme Court.

Circumstantial Factors Matter

A variety of circumstantial factors can affect the standard of care in a given situation.  These factors include, but are not necessarily limited to:

  • The professional training, experience, and capabilities of the defendant
  • The age of the defendant
  • The ability of persons within the zone of foreseeable risk to avoid danger (i.e., whether the defendant was in a school zone or near a hospital at the time of the accident)
  • The nature of the activity that the defendant was engaged in at the time of accident (i.e., driving, bicycling, etc.)
  • Any applicable laws and rules in place relating to the conduct at-issue
  • Informal expectations of conduct in the area

Suppose, for example, that a defendant is biking on a walking path in a local park.  Bikers are allowed to share the path, but most bikers go at a slow pace since the volume of pedestrian and bike traffic is high.  If the defendant bikes at an excessive speed given the high density and volume of pedestrian and bike traffic, then a court is likely to find that — under such circumstances — the biker was acting negligently.


If you have been injured due to the negligence of another, you may be entitled to compensation for your injuries.  Call West Coast Trial Lawyers at (888) 888-9285 to schedule a free consultation with an experienced Beverly Hills personal injury lawyer today.

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