Negligence Torts: Definition and Cases

Negligence Torts: Definition and Cases
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  • 0:07 Unintentional Tort of…
  • 3:16 Palsgraf v. Island…
  • 5:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kat Kadian-Baumeyer

Kat has a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership and Management and teaches Business courses.

Negligence is an unintentional tort wherein one party is injured as a result of the actions of another. There are several elements that must be present to prove this tort.

Unintentional Tort of Negligence

Your hair stylist suggests that you need a new look. Excited about the possibilities, you consent to allow her to use a new brand of hair color. After several minutes under the dryer, you smell a strong odor. Yikes, the smell is coming from your hair! The new treatment caused your hair to burn at the roots. Your hairdresser never read the warning on the package. It states that the product was not to be used with heat.

Left with your curly locks lying on the salon floor, you cry foul play! Well, it wasn't exactly that, it was negligence. You see, your hair stylist's actions were less than the expected standard of behavior by a person, and the actions caused damage. In order to prove negligence, the court will look at the elements:

  • The defendant's duty to the plaintiff
  • The breach of that duty
  • A cause in fact
  • Proximate cause
  • Damages

Let's break each element down for better understanding. Duty refers to one person's obligation to another to act in responsible ways. The hair stylist should have read the instructions and warnings prior to applying the product to your hair. Where there is a breach of duty, it simply means that the defendant did not act in a responsible way, and the actions do not have to be intentional. It could be an oversight or a mistake.

A cause in fact is established when a connection between the defendant's actions and the plaintiff's loss is established. Under normal conditions, your hair would not burn under a standard hair dryer. If not for the treatment, you would not have suffered damage.

Different than cause in fact, proximate cause is the direct cause for injury. It does not have to be the closest act in time - it just has to be the most significant act. Think of it as the scope of liability. Just how responsible was the hair stylist in causing the damages? To say it a different way, cause in fact is the connection between the negligent party's actions and the loss. In that instance, not reading the warning label proved to be neglectful. Proximate cause is the actual act of placing the product on your head and was really the initial act that caused the chain of events that caused you to lose your hair.

The but for test may help to explain this. Think of this as if the action did not occur, then injury would not have occurred. That establishes a causal relationship. Had the hairdresser read the label, she would have known not to use a dryer in conjunction with the treatment. Had she not used the dryer with the treatment, your hair wouldn't have burned. That is the chain of events that demonstrate proximate cause.

Damages are restitution for the loss suffered by the plaintiff. In some cases, it may be money as compensation for a loss. In other cases, it may include money for pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, or even future wages. In a case involving fireworks, an explosion and an injured passenger, let's see how the law applied the elements of negligence to reveal a very interesting outcome.

Palsgraf V. Long Island Railroad Co. (1928)

There are a few twists in this case, so follow closely. The plaintiff, Palsgraf, was purchasing a train ticket when, at the same time, two men ran across the platform. As the men hopped aboard the already moving train, one nearly fell to the ground when a couple of guards helped him to stay steady on his feet. As this happened, his package, which contained fireworks, also fell and hit the tracks. This caused an explosion.

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