So often we hear legal terms such as “negligence” and “wrongful death” used by attorney’s and non-attorney’s alike. It is almost common place for people to use the word when describing an accident or a person’s behavior. If you listen to some of the local radio stations here in Dallas-Fort Worth you will probably hear a few commercials for attorneys asking the question “have you been injured because of someone else’s negligence?” The word is thrown around almost nonchalant. But, under the law, negligence has a very deep and complex meaning. Using the word as a broad stroke “that was negligent” does not afford the word its due, and under the law, may not actually be so, as you will see below.
For attorney’s and legal professionals, these terms have significant meaning beyond the common understanding of the words. In law, these are called “legal terms of art”. For the practitioner of law, terms of art such as negligence, wrongful death, and the thousands of other legal terms of art have a meaning beyond just a Webster’s Dictionary definition. So, in this article we ask “just what does the word ‘negligence’ mean?”
Terms of art can have different meanings in different jurisdictions. For the most part, the term “negligence” has the same legal definition in all 50 states. However, what may be different is how it is applied in certain situations. For instance in Texas, up until 2015, evidence of a plaintiff’s own negligence by failing to wear a seat belt was not admissible to show that the plaintiff was partly or wholly the cause of their own injuries. However, that all changed with the Supreme Court of Texas’ decision on Nabors Well Services, Ltd v. Romero. Now, it is admissible, so you have yet another reason, other than the obvious, to wear your seat belt. The Supreme Court now says that if you fail to wear a seat belt it can be used against you to limit your recovery in a personal injury lawsuit. Many other states allow such evidence to be used to establish a plaintiff’s own negligence, but there are others states who still do not allow this type of evidence to prove plaintiff’s negligence.
But knowing how evidence is applied to prove negligent behavior is not the same as understanding what the term means. Negligence is what is called a “common law” cause of action. Common law simply means it the cause of action was not created by a statute. It exists as a form of law solely created by the courts. It is still common law in the State of Texas and has generally accepted “elements” for which a plaintiff must prove in order to establish a person’s negligent behavior that caused or contributed to the accident as a matter of law.
So What Does Negligence Mean Under the Law?
To get a good idea of what negligence means, it is always good to examine a case that explains and draws out the meaning of a legal term of art. For instance, Hoffman v. Wright, is a Texas Court of Appeals case out of the Court of Appeals in Eastland. It addresses a legal question of whether the plaintiff had asserted any evidence that the Defendant had negligently failed to require passengers in the vehicle to wear seat belts (there is that seat belt issue again. See! Wear your seat belts!). In addressing this issue, the Court of Appeals works through the elements of negligence in the common legal way by analyzing the evidence and the elements of negligence together to see if any evidence supports a claim for negligence. Without getting too complicated, the claims here had been addressed in the trial court by defendant who had filed a no-evidence summary judgment, which means that defendants asserted that plaintiffs had produced no evidence to support their claims of negligence by the defendant, and that when the summary judgment motion came before the court, the court agreed with the defendants, which effectively ended the litigation in the trial court and that is where we find ourselves now after plaintiff’s appealed their case to the Eastland Court of Appeals.
Hoffman v. Wright
In Hoffman, Lauren, Audrey, Wright, Wright’s stepdaughter, and one other passenger traveled west on State Highway 71 near Bee Cave Road in Wright’s sedan. Tammy Goodman was the driver of a pickup and traveled east on the same rain-swept road. About a mile west of the Bee Cave Road intersection, Goodman’s pickup lost traction, and she lost control of her pickup. It “fishtailed” across traffic lanes. Goodman’s pickup slid across the descending roadway into the westbound lanes and oncoming traffic. Her pickup collided with Wright’s sedan in the right outside lane as the sedan traveled westbound. Everyone in Wright’s sedan sustained serious injuries; Lauren and Audrey died at the scene. 2014 WL 709557 at *1.
Audrey’s parents filed a wrongful death suit against Goodman and other defendants and later added Wright as an additional defendant. Lauren’s parents filed a separate wrongful death suit against Goodman and Wright and other defendants. Wright moved for summary judgment as a matter of law that she owed no duty and that Appellants had no evidence that her actions were a breach of a duty that proximately caused Lauren’s and Audrey’s deaths. Id.
Appellants asserted that they presented more than a scintilla of evidence of Wright’s failure to ensure that Audrey wore her seat belt. Appellants claim Wright’s actions constituted negligence per se under Section 545.413(b) of the Texas Transportation Code. Appellants also claimed Wright’s failure to control her speed, brake properly, or swerve to avoid the accident was a breach of her duty of reasonable care under common law. Appellants further assert that her failure to control her speed was a violation of Section 545.351 of the Texas Transportation Code. Appellants contend Wright’s actions proximately caused their daughters’ deaths. Id at *2.
The elements of a negligence cause of action are the existence of a legal duty, a breach of that duty, and damages proximately caused by the breach. D. Houston, Inc. v. Love, 92 S.W.3d 450, 454 (Tex.2002). Proximate cause is generally a question of fact for the jury, but proximate cause may be established as a matter of law if the circumstances are such that reasonable minds could not arrive at a different conclusion. Boyd v. Fuel Distribs., Inc., 795 S.W.2d 266, 272 (Tex.App.-Austin 1990, writ denied) (citing Mo. Pac. R.R. Co. v. Am. Statesman, 552 S.W.2d 99, 104–05 (Tex.1977)). The two elements of proximate cause are “cause in fact” and “foreseeability.” IHS Cedars Treatment Ctr. of DeSoto, Tex., Inc. v. Mason, 143 S.W.3d 794, 798 (Tex.2004) (citing Travis v. City of Mesquite, 830 S.W.2d 94, 98 (Tex.1992)). Id at *3.
“Cause in fact” means that the act or omission was a substantial factor in bringing about the injury, and without it harm would not have occurred. Travis, 830 S.W.2d at 98 (citing Kerby v. Abilene Christian Coll., 503 S.W.2d 526, 528 (Tex.1973)). “ ‘Foreseeability’ means that the actor, as a person of ordinary intelligence, should have anticipated the dangers that his negligent act created for others.” Id. (citing Nixon v. Mr. Prop. Mgmt. Co., 690 S.W.2d 546, 549–50 (Tex.1985), and Mo. Pac. R.R. Co., 552 S.W.2d at 103). Id.
Conclusion of the Case
Lauren’s and Audrey’s deaths were tragic, and nothing can assuage the grief suffered by her parents, family, and friends. But before Wright can be held liable for their deaths, Appellants must adduce more than a scintilla of evidence that an act or omission by Wright was a proximate cause of the accident or of Lauren’s and Audrey’s deaths. Because Appellants presented no evidence that Wright’s actions or inactions proximately caused the accident or Lauren’s or Audrey’s death, we cannot say that the trial court erred when it granted summary judgment. Id at *5.
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