Ordinary negligence is a common law standard most frequently used in tort law to establish a standard by which a defendant can be held liable for damages suffered by the victim, or plaintiff. Less than ordinary negligence and gross negligence are also occasionally used in tort law to indicate a standard of care less than, or more than, ordinary negligence. When a defendant is found negligent, he or she generally is ordered to pay monetary damages to the plaintiff.
Courts have used a variety of terms in an attempt to define ordinary negligence. Basically, ordinary negligence is the failure of the defendant to exercise reasonable care to protect the plaintiff under the circumstances. Ordinary negligence can occur when a defendant does something that a reasonable person would not have done under similar circumstances or when a defendant fails to do something that a reasonable person would have done.
A case of ordinary negligence requires the plaintiff to prove four elements in order to recover compensation for his or her injuries. Those four elements are known as the duty of care, breach of duty, causation and damages. Some jurisdictions also add proximate cause as a fifth element, but the majority simplify the elements to four. Failure to prove all four elements means that the plaintiff will receive nothing for his or her injuries.
The duty of care requires the plaintiff to show that the defendant was legally required to protect the plaintiff from reasonably foreseeable harm. Breach of the duty of care can be shown if the defendant knowingly exposed the plaintiff to harm or if the defendant should have realized the harm and failed to do so. The plaintiff must then show that the harm actually suffered was the direct result of the defendant's breach of the duty of care. Finally, the plaintiff must have suffered "damages" or injuries as a result of the defendant's acts or omissions.
Damages awarded as a result of ordinary negligence might be special, general or punitive. Special damages, sometimes referred to as economic damages, are quantifiable. Examples of special damages include medical expenses or lost wages. General damages, or non-economic damages, are intended to compensate the plaintiff for non-quantifiable injuries such as emotional distress or pain and suffering. Punitive damages are not intended to compensate the plaintiff but to punish the victim and generally are awarded only in gross negligence cases.