Off Topic Conversation: What is Negligence

Daily writing prompt
What’s something most people don’t understand?

I saw this prompt pop up today and initially I wasn’t going to respond, as my answer has nothing to do with this website. But then I changed my mind and indulged myself.

Legal rant incoming

You may recall that I spent many years working in the legal profession, I later, thanks to transferable skills, went to work for the local government for a few years. From my experiences in these roles, the one thing I came across that most people don’t understand is negligence in a legal sense.

Negligence is, by UK legal definition, any act or omission which falls short of the standard to be expected of the “reasonable person” or a “reasonable professional”. This is a pretty broad definition, deliberately so, hence why most negligence cases are judged on a case-by-case basis and often require expert evidence to confirm if the standard fell below that of a reasonable person.

For a financial claim of negligence to be successful, you also have to have causation, which in a nutshell means that the negligence must have caused the injured party material harm.

Negligence is not a genuine accident or known risk coming to fruition, whereby all involved were acting reasonably and taking due care and attention, yet things still went south. Negligence is also not a person not getting the outcome they wanted. Just because things did not go their way does not mean always the other party was negligent.

Causation is not minor discomfort, for example having to wait a little longer than promised for a service. Causation is also not injury to feelings, except in certain discrimination cases, but that’s a whole other thing looked after by the equality act that I won’t go into here or we’ll be here all day.

Last, when one makes a claim for negligence under UK law, the purpose of the court is to put the injured party back in the position they would have been in had the negligence not occurred. Now, this is not always possible. If the negligence caused life-changing injuries, then the court cannot heal the injured party. They are not wizards, unfortunately. What this really means is that the court is trying to put the injured party in the financial position they would have been in had the injury not occurred. So, if someone’s life-changing injuries prevent them from working, then the court will aim to put them in the financial position they would have been in had they been able to work until retirement.

In a nutshell, claims for negligence are not to get rich quick schemes. There are limits on what can be claimed for injuries based on the level of trauma. Parties cannot invent a figure themselves. If they do and the court judge it to be unreasonable, it could hit them with a costs order (they pay the other sides legal fees even if they win the case). I cannot speak for other countries and other legal systems, but that is how it works in the UK.

I understand that most people won’t know the nitty gritty around negligence and negligence claims, and I honestly don’t blame people for the warped view of negligence that many people seem to have. I blame irresponsible reporting and advertisements for most of the misunderstanding.  

A good example of irresponsible reporting is the McDonald coffee case, which is not a UK case, but a world famous one. The case was reported in newspapers as if a lady had sued McDonalds for selling her hot coffee. They portrayed the victim as a Karen, kicking off big style over nothing. But what actually happened was that the McDonald’s branch was selling coffee at a dangerous temperature. Literally, the surface of the sun kind of hot, the burns this woman suffered were layers deep. She required extensive treatment and surgery to recover, was left with scaring etc. We’re not talking about a little scald here. Even then, she only wanted her medical bills covered. McDonalds refused, hence she had to sue them to afford treatment.

Bit different to the whole, Karen sues McDonalds because coffee is hot.

So, when you see a headline that says “Person tripped over a curb and successfully sues the council for six figures” please, please understand that there was a lot more to the case than the headline is telling you. First, there had to be something so wrong with the curb that the council was negligent for not fixing it, and the persons injuries had to be very severe to get six figures. These cases are not the norm, they are the extreme, hence why they end up in the click bait papers.

I'd love to hear what you think, please comment below.

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