Proving fault in a personal injury action
Proving fault in a personal injury action -- be it for negligence or breach of statutory duty -- has three elements:
- duty of care;
- breach of duty; and
Let's look at an example to see how a claimant would go about proving these elements:
John works in a factory owned and operated by BigCo. He was carrying a box along a designated walkway on the factory floor and then slipped in some oil leaking from a large machine. He fell onto the cement floor and shattered a bone in his arm.
So how does John prove BigCo was at fault and obtain compensation for his personal injury?
(i) Did BigCo owe John a duty of care?
It seems fairly clear that BigCo owed John a duty of care since he can prove that (a) he is employed by the company, (b) he was carrying out a regular employment activity at the time he was injured, and (c) he was injured on his employer's premises.
The situation might be different, however, if John was not employed by BigCo and broke into the factory. In that case, BigCo could deny owing any duty of care, as John would be a trespasser.
(ii) Did BigCo breach its duty of care to John?
John has two ways to prove BigCo breached its duty of care to him. First, he could claim it was negligent. Alternatively, he could argue it breached a statutory duty.
As a rule of thumb, a person is negligent if he fails to do something a reasonable person would have done, or if he does something that a reasonable and prudent person would not have done.
This definition, however, may vary in some personal injury cases. For example, in clinical / medical negligence cases, the question is not what a reasonable person would have done, but what a reasonable person possessing the specialist skills of the medical practitioner in question would have done.
In John's case, the 'reasonable person' standard of care would likely apply to BigCo. This means John will need to prove that a reasonable and prudent person would not have allowed the oil to become a hazard in the walkway. Whether John can prove this will depend on the circumstances leading up to the accident.
For example, if the faulty machine had persistently leaked oil for some time before the accident, and BigCo took no meaningful action to fix it, John should be able to prove the company unreasonably risked someone being injured.
On the other hand, what if the leak was a one-off occurrence? And the oil spread to the walkway because of the failure of an overflow drain that the employer installed, at significant expense, next to the machine? At some point, the employer's elaborate precautions might lead a court to conclude that a reasonable person could have done no more to prevent the hazard. So there are possible (although perhaps unlikely) scenarios in which John would struggle to prove that his employer had breached duty.
- Statutory duty
We are all subject to statutory duties of some sort or another. For example, drivers must comply with the Highway Code, and both employers and employees must comply with health and safety regulations.
Although a breach of statutory duty is primarily a matter for the relevant enforcement authority (e.g., the Health and Safety Executive) and therefore a basis for possible criminal liability or governmental sanctions, it is also relevant in civil cases.
In John's case, he would likely cite the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992. These regulations require employers, so far as reasonably practicable, to keep walkways clear of obstructions that may cause a person to slip, trip or fall. John would claim that BigCo breached its duty under these regulations. To prove this, he would highlight the existence of the oil hazard on the walkway, and stress that BigCo should have done more to keep the walkway clear of oil.
The phrase "so far as reasonably practicable" might give BigCo some room for argument, though. Say, for example, BigCo had a standby clean-up crew on call while the factory was operating, and the clean-up crew had in fact arrived to clean up the oil only moments after John had fallen. BigCo might argue that it satisfied its statutory duty to keep the walkway clear so far as reasonably practicable. Although there is no magic shield that can automatically keep walkways clear at all times, BigCo would argue that by keeping a rapid response clean-up crew on site, it was, in effect, keeping the walkways clear so far as reasonably practicable.
Some statutory duties, however, are absolute. Unlike the duty discussed above, they require strict adherence to a certain condition or state of affairs, and impose strict liability if a party fails to do so, even if the reason for the failure is beyond its control.
(iii) Did BigCo's breach of duty cause John's injury?
Assuming John is successful in proving that BigCo breached its duty to him, he will need to prove that his injury happened as a consequence of that breach.
In simple terms, John will need to show that the oil on the walkway caused him to slip, the slip caused him to fall, and the fall caused his broken bones. He will likely do this with a variety of sources of evidence, ranging from photographs of the walkway, photographs of the oil spill and/or testimony as to its existence, and medical reports about his injury.
Note also that for an injury to count as the result of the breach of duty, it must be an injury that was a foreseeable result of the breach, and not unduly remote in time or space. In John's case, that should pose no problem, since it would seem foreseeable that a person could slip and fall on an oil slick on a factory walkway. On the other hand, if John had not been injured, but had gone home and tracked some of the oil into his kitchen, causing his wife to slip and fall on the kitchen floor, a court might find that the wife's injury was too remote and not a foreseeable result of BigCo's breach of duty.
Even though John's case against BigCo seems fairly good, BigCo (or, more likely, its insurance company) still has several arguments to make, which could have a major impact on the court's decision. In cases like this, having an experienced solicitor who specialises in personal injury cases can make the world of difference.
You can find a solicitor who specialises in personal injury law in your area for free via solicitor matching services, which can also help you to understand the best course of action for your situation and whether you are even ready to hire a solicitor.
And, depending on your situation, they may be able to find a solicitor who will agree to take your case on a "no-win-no-fee" basis, which means you don't have to pay for the solicitor's services unless you win your case.