Personal injury cases are largely decided on proven negligence. In North Carolina law, negligence refers to the careless or willful actions or inactions of the responsible party, which resulted in injuries to the victim. To prove negligence, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant owed a duty of care to others, that he or she failed to fulfill that duty, that the breach of duty resulted in injuries through proximate cause, and that actual damages were suffered.
To demonstrate proximate cause is to show that the injuries occurred with a clear and foreseeable causal link to the breach of duty. That doesn’t mean that the defendant knew the injury would occur, but that one could anticipate the outcome from the nature of the negligence.
An example of this would be found in a store, where a gallon of milk has spilled and not been cleaned up properly, and no wet floor sign has been set up. It is reasonably foreseeable that someone might slip and fall on the wet floor. Yet, if someone came to this scene and decided to consume the remnants of the spoiled milk, becoming ill in the process, this would not be reasonably foreseeable. The slip and fall accident would have clear proximate cause, where the consumption of spoiled milk illness would not.
There are also superseding factors to consider when establishing probable cause and foreseeability in personal injury cases. If there was an event that occurred between the negligence and the injury, then this may be a superseding event that removes responsibility from the initial negligence. Acts of God (like weather factors), criminal acts on behalf of a third party (like trespassing), and intentional torts by a third party (like assault) can be considered as superseding factors.
Consider a circumstance where a mechanic spilled some gasoline and failed to clean it up, then a customer flicked a lit cigarette into the spill, causing a fire and serious burns to the customer. The act of the customer flicking a lit cigarette into the spill could be considered a superseding factor that breaks the link between the mechanic’s carelessness and the customer’s injuries. Thus, the mechanic could be cleared of any liability in the accident, based on this argument.
Identifying a Duty of Care
To establish negligence, you have to identify a duty of care, owed by the defendant and breached by the defendant, directly causing injuries to the plaintiff. There are many different duties of care, as identified in a variety of unique life situations. For example, a driver has a duty of care to adhere to traffic rules to avoid injury, a pedestrian has a duty of care to avoid walking into oncoming traffic, and a dog owner has a duty of care to keep the dog from attacking or biting others. Doctors and lawyers have specific standards that define their duties of care by statute. Whenever any professional or individual breaches his or her duty of care, that person can be found negligent and liable for any injuries that occurred.
Contributory Negligence Standard in NC
Very few states still follow a standard of contributory negligence, though North Carolina is one of them. This is a theory that allows for percentages of fault to be assigned to each party, so that if the plaintiff is partially responsible for the accident, his or her recovery will be reduced by that percentage of contributory negligence. Yet, if the plaintiff was more than 50% at fault, then he or she will be barred from recovering compensation for injuries and losses.
The exception to the contributory negligence standard is applied with mentally impaired individuals and children under seven years old, both of whom are considered legally incapable of contributory negligence in personal injury cases.