California Negligence Laws

Any personal injury case in California is going to deal with the issue of negligence. This guide will help you understand the legal meaning of negligence and how it plays out in California law.

What is Negligence?

California law considers negligence to be the failure to use reasonable care to prevent harm to oneself or to others. For instance, a pedestrian who injures themselves tripping over an unsecured pothole may have a negligence claim against the city. 

From state to state, there is basically no variation in the definition of negligence. However, the portioning of the blame between the defendant and the plaintiff varies depending on the details of the case. For example, in the pothole accident above, one state may portion 100% blame to the defendant (the city), while another state may only portion them 50% of the blame.

California negligence laws are examples of”comparative negligence“. This is where the plaintiff and the defendant both share a portion of the blame. The plaintiff can then sue for the percentage of damage caused by the defendant. 

California’s statutory definition of liability for negligent acts: 

“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, except so far as the latter has, willfully or by want of ordinary care, brought the injury upon himself or herself. The design, distribution, or marketing of firearms and ammunition is not exempt from the duty to use ordinary care and skill that is required by this section. The extent of liability in these cases is defined by the Title on Compensatory Relief.”

Proving Negligence

In California, the plaintiff can only prove a defendant’s negligence by demonstrating these five elements:

  1. The defendant had a duty to act or refrain from acting
  2. The defendant breached their duty (negligence)
  3. The breach of duty by the defendant was the cause the plaintiff’s injury
  4. The defendant’s act or failure to act was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury
  5. The plaintiff did indeed suffer damages as a result of the injury
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Duty of Care

In California, citizens owe a “duty of care” to one another in their everyday interactions. What this amounts to is an expectation of safe and responsible behaviour on the part of the general public. Often this duty is written into workplace and road regulations etc. However, sometimes it is not straightforward how far a person’s duty of care extends. In many cases, the duty of care is circumstantial and the court will decide whether it was owed or not. In determining where the duty of care rests, the court considers foreseeability – in other words, would the responsible person have been able to foresee the cause of injury.

Breach of Duty

Following the establishment of duty, a plaintiff must then establish a breach of that duty by the defendant. In other words, they need to prove that the defendant did not uphold their duty.  In California, breaches of duty are often established where a defendant violates a statute. 

Cause of Injury

The plaintiff must prove that the breach of duty that occurred by the defendant was the very cause of the injuries that they suffered. In California, there are two ways to determine the cause in personal injury cases:

The “but for” test: 

Basically, this amounts to the claim that “but for” the actions of the defendant, the accident would not have occurred. The “but for” test applies in cases that involve a single incident causing the injury. Recently, the “but for” test has lost prestige in California Courts.

The substantial factor test:

This test asks whether or not a reasonable person would consider the accident to have contributed to the Plaintiffs injury. If the defendant’s negligence is to be deemed the decisive factor in the injury it cannot be a remote or trivial factor. A defendant may counterclaim that the plaintiff’s injuries were not the result of the injury, but of some other substantial factor such as old age or a previous incident.


The Plaintiff must establish that they were in fact harmed or injured by the accident. As obvious as it may seem it is worth pointing out that injury is a requirement for a personal injury claim. That is to say that an incident or accident alone is not enough to make a compensation claim. 

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Defences to Negligence

The most common defences to California personal injury claims are:

The defendant rejects the duty of care 

Many defendants will make the claim that they did not owe a duty of care to the plaintiff.

The defendant claims the plaintiff was responsible

Defendants will often blame the plaintiff for causing the accident or injury.

Negligence is often a complicated issue to resolve. This introductory guide is to help you gain a better understanding of the legal meaning of negligence. However, there are times when the advice of a legal professional will be necessary. 

Are you, or is someone you know is struggling with the legalities of a personal injury case? California.Law’s list of legal specialists can help you through this process.