Four Elements of Negligence: The Legal Definition of Wrongful Death


Negligence is a legal concept that applies when you’re trying to prove not only that someone is at fault for an action but also that their action was outside of normal behavior.

The theory exists to set a standard for legal action. It prevents people from suing and winning when a death occurs as a result of a genuine, unpreventable accident or error.

To determine whether someone is negligent, the court requires the plaintiff to prove four elements of negligence. Here’s what each element involves.

1Legal Duty of Care

In order to sue for either a wrongful death or a personal injury, you first must prove that defendant owed the injury or deceased party a “legal duty of care.”

Legal duty of care can be codified through law, such as the duty a doctor owes a patient to provide them with medical care. It can also apply more generally. For example, you owe all other drivers and pedestrians a legal duty of care to drive safely (i.e., within the bounds of traffic laws).

If you can’t provide the first of the four elements of negligence, then you don’t have a case. All the other elements rely on this first rule.

2Breach of Duty

When you establish a legal duty of care, you must then prove that the defendant violated their duty. The violation can be action or inaction, and it must fall under the category of something a “reasonably prudent person” or an average person would avoid in the same circumstances.

In other words, in wrongful death claims associated with medicine, you must prove that the care provider’s actions wouldn’t be considered by other medical professionals and that the care provider knew someone could be injured.

Breach of duty may be proved by special or expert witnesses.


With a breach of duty proven, you then must demonstrate that the injury or death occurred because of the breach of duty. In other words, the defendant can only be liable for the injuries they could have foreseen.

To prove causation, there must be a direct link between the action/inaction and the injury. A helpful description comes from Cork v Kirby MacLean ltd [1952]. If the injury would not have happened but for the specific breach of duty, then the breach of duty is the cause of the damage.

In cases where other factors contributed, courts use a balance of probabilities. If the defendant is at least 51% at fault, then they are held responsible.


Damages include the actual harm caused by the injury. It usually includes physical or actual damages, like the costs of medical bills or loss of income. However, it can also include pain and suffering damages.

An attorney calculates the damages according to a formula and then presents the number to the court.

All Four Elements of Negligence Must Exist

An accident or mistake doesn’t necessarily make a person legally negligent. For negligence to exist, the plaintiff must prove all four elements of negligence apply to the case.

Without duty of care, breach of duty, causation, and damages, you can’t prove a party was legally negligent.

Did you find this article helpful? You can learn more in our Law archive.


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