What Exactly Does Negligence Mean In California?

In California, a plaintiff may not proceed on a claim of negligence until he or she properly pleads a prima facie case for the cause of action. Prima facie is a Latin term which means “on its face.” In legal terms it means that you have stated all the facts that are sufficient to support a cause of action for negligence. In order to properly plead a prima facie case, you should consult with a California personal injury attorney.

In order to state a prima facie case for negligence, you must be able to plead the existence of a duty, the breach of that duty, causation and damages. Each separate element will be discussed below.


Everyone has a duty to use care in performing any task where a party may be injured. California has codified what is a legal duty. The legislature has defined duty as being that “everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person….” Cal. Civ. Code § 1714(a).
In determining whether one party owed another party a duty, the court will consider what is called foreseeability. The general rule that California Courts have adopted is that a defendant owes a duty to everyone who may be put in danger by his or her conduct. For example, in California person driving a car or a truck has a duty to everyone on the road. If the automobile driver causes an accident which makes an individual suffer personal injuries, such as a pedestrian, another car or motorcycle driver, the driver of the first vehicle has violated their duty of care.


Once a duty has been established, an injured party must next establish breach of that duty. Determining whether a breach occurred is generally a factually dependent question. The question to be answered in these scenarios is what did the other party do. If an automobile driver falls asleep and causes a car accident, breach is generally established which in turn makes a party suffer personal injuries.
In California, Breach may also be established where a defendant violates a statute. This analysis commonly occurs in car accidents. A police report may say that another driver was following the other car too closely and as a result rear-ended the car in front of them. This would be in violation of California Vehicle Code § 21703, and as such the other driver is what is called negligent per se.


The next element to be proven is what is called causation. Causation means that the breach of the duty by Defendant caused the plaintiff’s injuries. In California there are two ways that causation may be determined for personal injury actions.

The first way is called the “but for” test, which is "but for" the other party’s conduct, the accident or incident would not have occurred. This is most appropriate where there is a single act that causes an injury. For example, but for the defendant’s act of rear-ending the plaintiff’s vehicle, the plaintiff would not have been injured.

The “but for” test has fallen out of favor with the California Courts. The Court believes that the test may mislead jurors and so a new test has been established called the substantial factor test. Substantial factor is defined as being whether a reasonable person would consider the incident that occurred to have contributed to the harm suffered by a Plaintiff; it must be more than a remote or trivial factor, and it does not have to be the only cause of the harm. This commonly arises in cases where soft-tissue personal injuries occur. Defendants, opposing counsel and insurance companies love this argument. They generally argue that the back strain or sprain was pre-existing or was degenerative in nature, meaning age. This is usually where a party who is attempting to handle their own claim runs into trouble. Without legal knowledge, it is sometimes hard to overcome this argument.


Finally, a Plaintiff must be able to establish that he was actually harmed or injured. Many times I receive a phone call from someone who has fallen on the street or in a store. They will call and tell me what occurred. I then ask what their injury was and many times there is no injury or harm. If a party is not injured, then there is generally no case. The best thing to do in these situations is to brush off the embarrassment and move on.

If you can establish these four elements, you may be successful in your personal injury claim.

By Allegiance Law, California
Law Firm Website: https://www.allegiancelaw.com/

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jason Lundberg
I primarily represent clients in personal injury matters and employment law and California Labor Code violations. I take pleasure in helping my clients maneuver through, what sometimes could be considered, a confusing and overwhelming legal system.

Over the course of my career, I achieved results for my clients through negotiated settlements, as well as taking matters all the way to jury trials. Every situation is different, be it a car accident or employment harassment, and a different perspective is applied to each case to determine what the best course of action could be. However, either way, I am equally comfortable discussing your matter with an opposing adjuster at an insurance company or in front of a judge and a jury.

Copyright Allegiance Law

Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication at the time it was written. It is not intended to provide legal advice or suggest a guaranteed outcome as individual situations will differ and the law may have changed since publication. Readers considering legal action should consult with an experienced lawyer to understand current laws and.how they may affect a case. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

Find a Lawyer