California Negligence Law: The Elements of Negligence

sad man sitting in office
••• Aramyan/iStock/GettyImages

In some ways it would be easier if legal language did not overlap with regular every-day English, since it is easy to get confused. The word negligence in regular speech means being careless. But in the law, negligence refers to the legal concept that if someone behaves in a way that a reasonably prudent person would not have behaved, or in a way that breaches a duty of reasonable care, that person can be liable for the damages caused.

Many personal injury actions in California are based on negligence claims, so it's important to understand this concept of liability.

What Are Negligence Laws?

Negligence laws in California don't necessarily use the word negligence in them. They are laws that set out a person's duty to use reasonable care to avoid injuring other people and property. A person who acts carelessly and doesn't meet that duty of care is negligent and can be liable for the harm the action caused. California Civil Code Section 1714 states that every person is responsible for injuries caused by their lack of ordinary care. The test for the word "caused" in California law is whether a reasonably prudent person would have realized that a specific action or inaction could injure someone.

The time frame for bringing a lawsuit, or cause of action, based on negligence depends on the type of damage involved. For example, if someone is in an auto accident caused by the negligence of another driver, they have two years to bring a cause of action for personal injury and three years to bring a cause of action for personal property damage. Obviously, a person suing for both these types of damages would want to bring the entire case within two years.

Read More: California Car Accident Compensation Laws: Pure and Modified Comparative Negligence

What Are the Elements of Negligence?

In order for someone to be found liable due to their negligent behavior in California, the other party must prove four elements:

  • Duty
  • Breach of that duty
  • Causation, and
  • Damages

The element of duty means the duty to use reasonable care. Californians are charged with the duty to use reasonable care in everything they do, from driving a car to cutting the lawn. The scope of the duty changes, however, depending on the person's skills, training and age. For example, a young child's duty of care in a situation will be less than an adult's in the same situation, and a trained doctor's duty of care when offering medical care can be greater than an untrained Good Samaritan's duty.

The element of breach means the actual wrongful conduct. Someone driving an automobile too fast for the road and the existing weather conditions has breached the duty to drive with reasonable care. The element of causation means that the person's breach of the duty of care was the legal cause of someone else's damages. Damages, the final element, describes the injured person's losses from the incident and can include medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

What Is California Comparative Negligence Law?

In California, like in other states, accidents don't always involve the negligence of just one party. In car accidents, for example, both drivers might be speeding, or a speeding driver might hit a jay-walking pedestrian. States deal with these types of situations where both parties are acting negligently either by applying the contributory negligence doctrine of liability or the comparative fault doctrine.

For some years, California was a contributory negligence state. That means if the suing party was even a little at fault, they could not recover any damages in a negligence action against the other party. However, in 1975, the California Supreme Court found this to be unfair and, instead, adopted the comparative fault standard. Under this standard, the first party can be held liable even if the second party had some level of fault as well. But the parties are responsible only for their comparative share of the damages. For example, if a speeding driver is found to be 75 percent at fault for hitting a jay-walking pedestrian, the pedestrian can recover only 75 percent of proven damages from the driver.


  • In California, the four elements of negligence are duty, breach of that duty, causation and damages.

Related Articles