Establishing Fault in Arizona
Typically, when someone files a lawsuit due to an injury (personal injury, medical malpractice etc.), it is because someone or some entity acted negligently. The injured party (plaintiff) thereby sues on the theory of “negligence” in order to show that some other party (defendant) is to blame for their injuries.
But what about if more than one person is negligent? Or what if the injured person is partially responsible for their own injuries? Let’s dive in a bit!
What does Negligence even mean?
A lot of people hear the word “negligence” and don’t really understand exactly what that means. Negligence is just a fancy word for carelessness. Someone was either careless by doing something they shouldn’t have (texting while driving) or careless by failing to do something they should have done (forgetting to check a patient’s charts for specific allergies).
How to know/prove if someone was Negligent?
In Arizona, in order to show that someone was negligent the plaintiff has the burden of proving the following elements:
- First, the defendant/negligent party must have owed the plaintiff some duty of care. What this means is not every person automatically owes another person a duty of care. If you are walking down the street and see a random person about to step out in front of a car, and you don’t stop them in time, they probably can’t sue you for negligence because you didn’t owe them any duty of care to begin with. While you might have a personal MORAL duty to help, that doesn’t mean you LEGALLY owe them any duty of care.
In order for a duty of care to arise, the law must recognize a relationship between the plaintiff and defendant in which an obligation is imposed on the defendant to conduct oneself in conformance with a certain standard of care. For example, a doctor owes a patient a certain duty of care just as a homeowner owes his/her visitors a certain duty of care. More broadly, a driver owes a duty of care to everyone else on the road.
- Second, the plaintiff must prove that defendant breached the above duty of care. This occurs when the defendant does not meet the required standard of care. Generally, the applicable standard of care is that of a “reasonable person.” What kind of care would a “reasonable person” exercise under the same circumstances? If a driver runs a red light, it is easy to determine that he/she has breached their duty of care because a reasonable person driving a car would stop at the red light.
However, in certain situations the standard of care is more than that of the average reasonable person. In Arizona, doctors must exercise the same degree of care as a reasonable provider with the same training and experience. This can be more challenging as some doctors may think something is reasonable while other doctors think otherwise. Therefore, in Arizona medical experts are required in medical malpractice cases to testify as to the appropriate standard of care in that particular area of practice.
- Third, the plaintiff must prove that the injury was caused by defendants breaching their duty of care. The question becomes “if the defendant hadn’t breached their duty, would the injury still have occurred?” This seems like an easy element to prove but sometimes it gets complicated.
For example, a doctor misses the diagnosis of a cancer patient and therefore the cancer isn’t discovered until a year later. The doctor didn’t cause the cancer, but the delay of one year allowed the cancer to spread throughout the body leading to further complications or possibly death. The doctor may be liable for the damages from the delay in diagnosis.
- Fourth, the plaintiff must prove that they actually suffered some sort of injury. This could mean a mental injury (traumatic event that caused ptsd for example), physical injury, or even injury to property. If someone runs a red light and it causes another driver to swerve to get out of their way but there is no damage to the person or car, they are unlikely going to be able to meet this element.
In Arizona, depending on your case, the plaintiff could be compensated for things like missed time from work, medical care and treatment, loss of enjoyment of life or life’s activities, reasonable funeral expenses, pain and suffering etc. etc.
Negligence per se
Like discussed above, it is the plaintiff’s burden to prove the defendant owed a duty and breached that duty. In some circumstances these two elements might already be proven under the doctrine of negligence per se.
In Arizona, negligence per se is available in situations where the defendant broke the law and the law was, (1) enacted for the protection and safety of the public, and (2) expresses the rules of conduct in specific and concrete terms as opposed to general or abstract principles.
Therefore, in many circumstances if a plaintiff can prove the defendant broke the law, then they do not need to prove the defendant owed them a duty and breached that duty. This is very common with traffic violations.
Pure Comparative Negligence
In Arizona, when you are hurt due to someone else’s negligence, you are entitled to compensation even if it was partially your fault. However, that doesn’t mean you will recover 100% of the total damages. Under this rule, courts will examine and compare the negligence of ALL parties, and non-parties (see below) and each will be assigned a percentage of fault determined by whose actions contributed to the injury. A.R.S. 12-2505.
If you are found to be partially at fault for your injury, then your award amount will be reduced by your percentage of fault. For example, if you are found to be 25% negligent than the recoverable damages will be reduce by 25%. The injured party would therefore only be able to recover the remaining 75% of the total amount of damages.
Non-Parties at Fault
As referenced in the rule above, fault may also be allocated to non-parties. A non-party is someone who is not currently part of the lawsuit but contributed to the injury in some way. A.R.S. 12-2506(b).
Let’s say, for example, you are found to be 25% negligent and there is a non-party who is 25% negligent. Now, you may only recover 50% of the total damages from the party whom is named in the lawsuit.
If you’d like more information, or want to learn more about your legal options, please contact us to speak to a licensed attorney. We offer a free consultation so you can get a better idea about the strength of your case, the costs involved, and what the lawsuit process may look like.