What Is the Difference Between Ordinary Negligence vs. Gross Negligence?

Negligence is the cornerstone of most personal injury cases in California. It is the legal doctrine that imposes consequences on someone who fails to meet the accepted standards of care, resulting in personal injuries, property damages or wrongful death. If you are part of a personal injury case in California, it is important to learn the difference between ordinary negligence and gross negligence. The consequences for gross negligence can be severe.

What Are the Elements of Ordinary Negligence?

Ordinary negligence is the failure to meet or fulfill someone’s standards of care to another person. It can refer to any act or omission that another person who was reasonable and prudent would not have committed in the same or similar circumstances. An example is a lifeguard looking down at his or her cellphone while children are swimming in a pool. Someone could be guilty of ordinary negligence if four elements exist.

  1. Duty of care. The person allegedly at fault for an accident or injury (the defendant) must have owed the victim a duty of care at the time. Duties of care may be legal or ethical obligations based on the circumstances.
  2. Breach of duty. The defendant must have been negligent or violated the duty of care. Any lack of ordinary care or failure to exercise the degree of care that a normal person would use will constitute negligence.
  3. To be liable for a personal injury accident, the defendant’s negligence must have caused the victim’s injuries or damages. The victim would not have the damages were it not for the defendant’s breach of the duty of care.
  4. The fourth element is damages accrued. The victim must have real and compensable damages due to the defendant’s negligence, such as medical expenses, lost wages, property damages, and pain and suffering.

These are the four main elements necessary to prove a case of ordinary negligence in California. Establishing these elements to be more than 50% true using evidence will place liability for the victim’s damages with the defendant. The defendant will then be responsible for paying for the victim’s losses. If the defendant is guilty of gross negligence, however, he or she may have to pay additional compensation.

What Constitutes Gross Negligence?

Gross negligence is an even greater failure to provide reasonable care than ordinary negligence. It can describe a severe example of negligence, the lack of providing even the lowest level of care or an extreme departure from the standard of care. In the lifeguard example, looking down at a phone for a few seconds could constitute ordinary negligence. It could be grossly negligent, however, for a lifeguard to leave the pool area entirely. Gross negligence describes any action or failure to act where the risk of harm is great and/or obvious.

Proving gross negligence may be necessary if a personal injury case involves a liability waiver. While a permission slip or liability waiver may protect a defendant for ordinary negligence, the California courts have held that it cannot protect a defendant who is guilty of gross negligence. If a child was injured or killed while participating in a sports event or summer camp, for instance, the parents may be able to hold the program responsible if it or one of its workers was grossly negligent in allowing the incident to happen.

The concept of gross negligence in California is not the same as malicious intent to harm or criminal actions. These types of actions describe wanton or reckless misconduct. You may need an attorney to help you prove gross negligence, wanton disregard, intent to harm or recklessness in California. Proving gross negligence vs. ordinary negligence could expose someone to liability despite a release waiver. It could also result in a punitive damage award: additional compensation for the victim to punish a defendant for especially negligent behavior. Speak to a Sacramento personal injury attorney about the standard of negligence in your case for more information.