What is Negligence?
Strictly speaking, negligence is “a failure to behave with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances” (https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/negligence). Unlike many other reasons for a personal injury lawsuit, negligence can include actions taken (commission) as well as actions not taken(omission).
Standards for Proving Negligence
There are four elements required to prove a case of negligence:
- A legal duty owed to the plaintiff by the defendant
- A breach of that legal duty by the defendant
- An injury (harm) suffered by the plaintiff
- Proof that the breach of duty by the defendant caused the harm to the plaintiff
For example, if someone is injured in a nightclub and files suit based on negligence (such as a lack of adequate security), they would need to prove that they were a customer or patron of the club, that the club had a legal duty to keep them safe, that they were injured at the club, and that the club breached its duty to keep the customer safe while at the club.
How to Prevent Workplace Negligence
Understand that there are no federal standards for determining what constitutes negligence, so courts often rely on what is referred to as the Hand Formula, named for Judge Learned Hand who devised it in a case in 1947. In short, the formula says that if the cost of the harm multiplied by its probability of occurring exceeds the cost of preventing the harm, there is negligence.
For a business owner, preventing negligence can encompass a wide variety of actions, including:
- Understand your business — Who are your customers? What actions do customers usually take while on your premises?
- How might your customers be injured — Look at all the possibilities where a customer might be injured at your business. Some of them may be ridiculous, but it is still your duty to consider them.
- How can you prevent a potential injury — Determining a method or means to prevent the injury
- Employ a reasonable mitigation — While the Hand Formula is not foolproof, courts will strongly consider reasonable actions taken by a business owner. Were there adequate policies in place? Were reasonable actions taken to prevent the injury? Did the business make a legitimate, reasonable effort to uphold its duty to the customer?
- Post establishment rules — As crazy as it may seem, sometimes putting clear rules and expectations in an obvious place can be all that it takes. “Do not stand behind moving trucks” may seem obvious to most, but posting such a sign is also a reasonable and prudent action for a loading dock area and may keep your business out of the courtroom.
- Be sure your employees are adequately trained — This includes doing their jobs as well as being on the alert for potential problems. If an employee sees a problem or potential problem, they should also know how to report it.
Be Proactive Instead of Reactive
No business owner wants to be in court, so the best way to avoid a negligence claim is to take action before it happens. Businesses are complex, and so are laws. Seek a consultation from a workplace safety expert. Also, consult with an attorney before a workplace injury occurs — and especially if one has already happened. Because when it comes to negligence, an ounce of prevention is worth a lot more than a pound of cure.