What is Ordinary Negligence?

Renee Booker

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.

A doctor who fails to disclose all available treatment options to a patient may be sued for medical negligence.
A doctor who fails to disclose all available treatment options to a patient may be sued for medical negligence.

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 surgeon who is negligent during surgery may face charges.
A surgeon who is negligent during surgery may face charges.

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.

Negligence may result in emotional distress.
Negligence may result in emotional distress.

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Discussion Comments


I can see where some things would meet the definition of negligence, like not repairing a hazardous piece of equipment or not deicing a slippery sidewalk. But sometimes I think people file lawsuits for things that aren't negligence at all. Sometimes unfortunate things just happen, and a business owner shouldn't have to suffer financially because of events out of his control.

I was on a jury in a case involving ordinary negligence, and we ended up finding in favor of the plaintiff. The defendant should have put up "Wet Floor" signs around a spill and didn't. We felt the defendant didn't train the employee who mopped up the spill well enough and his failure to warn customers about the hazard contributed to the plaintiff's fall. We agreed on special damages, but not punitive damages.


When I worked in restaurants, the owners lived in fear of negligence lawsuits. "Ordinary negligence" was often cited by the plaintiff's lawyers in their first letters to the store. A customer would break a tooth while eating at the restaurant, then claim to find a metal object like a staple in their food, for example. Their lawsuit would be based on the restaurant failing to find the object in the original packaging or not removing it from the food before service.

The idea was that a restaurant had an obligation to inspect food before serving it to the public. Even if the cook had no reason to expect the supplier would use metal staples, he or she would still need to look out for things that could hurt customers. If the restaurant failed to clean up spilled food and a customer slipped and fell, the same definition of negligence would apply. I can't tell you how many times I've seen restaurants settle these cases out of court.

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