Negligence is a fundamental legal concept in personal injury law. It describes a failure to uphold a duty to keep others safe—and instead acting in such a way that someone is harmed. When a person is injured in an accident caused by negligence, they have the right to take legal action against the party responsible for the accident. The success of most personal injury lawsuits rests on the ability to prove the other party committed negligence.
Some acts of negligence rise above a normal failure to uphold a duty of care. These are often described by the term “gross negligence.” But just because an act or omission is particularly harmful, it does not mean it meets the legal definition of gross negligence. In Pennsylvania, the term is somewhat vaguely defined. It takes an experienced attorney to carefully assess a personal injury case, determine the level of negligence, and prove to a court that gross negligence was a factor.
Most personal injury cases begin by alleging that the defendant was negligent. You can think, for example, of a distracted driver who causes a car accident, a hotel manager who neglects to fix a known property hazard, or an understaffed nursing home ill-equipped to give patients the care they need. All of these can be considered examples of negligence.
For any personal injury case alleging negligence to move forward, the plaintiff (the party pursuing legal action against the defendant) must be able to prove four elements:
- The defendant owed the plaintiff a legal duty of care.
- The defendant breached their duty to the plaintiff.
- The plaintiff suffered an injury.
- The plaintiff’s injury was caused by the defendant’s breach of duty.
In order to obtain compensation through a personal injury lawsuit, the plaintiff will need to demonstrate negligence and the measurable damages they suffered as a result.
Negligence vs. Gross Negligence
But there are some instances of negligence that are more severe, more flagrant, more destructive, or more intentional than what is generally considered “ordinary” negligence. These egregious acts or omissions are often referred to as “gross negligence.”
From the examples above, we can imagine that instead of simply being distracted and missing a stop sign, the driver’s severe intoxication caused a head-on collision with an oncoming vehicle, killing the family inside. The hotel manager used a cheap water filtration system to save money, indifferent to the fact that it was poisoning guests. The nursing home kept known abusers on staff, despite conclusive evidence that residents were being victimized.
From these examples, we can see that gross negligence is often used to describe situations in which the defendant’s disregard for the safety and wellbeing of others rose to a higher level.
But while the term “gross negligence” is often used in this manner, each state has its own specific definition in law. This legal definition is important because it determines what behaviors can be categorized, and thus handled by law, as gross negligence.
What Is Gross Negligence in Pennsylvania?
Defining the term “gross negligence” in Pennsylvania is not as straightforward as simply calling extremely bad negligence “gross.” What exactly constitutes gross negligence is an issue that has arisen many times in Pennsylvania courts over the past several decades. Moreover, the term can be defined differently between civil law (such as personal injury cases) and criminal law.
There are a few prominent civil cases personal injury lawyers look to when defining the term gross negligence in Pennsylvania. The cases Bloom v. DuBois Regional Medical Center and Albright v. Abington Memorial Hospital described gross negligence in the context of the Mental Health Procedures Act (MHPA), the statute governing the hospitalization and commitment processes for individuals in Pennsylvania with serious mental illnesses. In these cases, gross negligence was defined as “a form of negligence where the facts support substantially more than ordinary carelessness, inadvertence, laxity, or indifference.”
Another recent high-profile example is the case Feleccia v. Lackawanna College, in which two aspiring college football players were injured completing a controversial, NFL-banned tackling maneuver during tryouts. The plaintiff alleged the defendant committed gross negligence and recklessness, seeking punitive damages in court. In this case, the court stated that gross negligence does not need to involve an intentional act but must be an “extreme departure from the standard of care, beyond that required to establish ordinary negligence.” It is the failure to exercise even “scant care,” and is instead a “flagrant” or “gross deviation” from the standard of care required of the defendant.
Defining the term gross negligence in Pennsylvania requires a wealth of legal knowledge and experience. Personal injury lawyers defending plaintiffs alleging gross negligence must devote significant research and analysis to understanding how the term was used in past cases. Pennsylvania court cases have used the term gross negligence as far back as the 18th century. But there is still much room for interpretation for litigators working in the PA court system today.
What Happens if a Personal Injury Case Involves Gross Negligence?
Gross negligence can be—but is not automatically—punishable with punitive damages. Punitive damages are awarded by a court to punish a defendant. This requires the defendant to pay a sum of money above and beyond the compensatory damages awarded to the plaintiff.
Compensatory damages compensate the victim for the losses they incurred. Compensatory damages include economic damages like medical bills and lost wages, as well as noneconomic damages like pain and suffering.
Punitive damages, on the other hand, do not compensate the victim’s losses. They serve as a punishment to the defendant. If the defendant’s act or omission was considered by the PA court to be gross negligence, the judge may make the decision to apply punitive damages. The terms “malicious,” “wanton,” “reckless,” and “willful” are often used in the PA court system to warrant the decision to award punitive damages. This decision is made not only to prevent the defendant from engaging in the same actions again, but to deter others from similar actions. Punitive damages serve to “make an example” out of particularly heinous behavior. They are therefore, also, called “exemplary damages.”
Stapp Law, LLC Has the Legal Representation You Need in Williamsport
If you were injured in an incident that you believe involved gross negligence, it’s best to speak with a qualified attorney immediately. Your personal injury lawyer will be able to advise you on the best way to handle your case.
Time can be critical in cases involving gross negligence. The Pennsylvania statute of limitations places an unforgiving deadline on the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit against the at-fault party. And cases in which gross negligence is a factor can take a significant amount of time to investigate and prepare.
Don’t wait to learn how to proceed toward recovery. Contact Stapp Law, LLC in Williamsport today. We’ll schedule a free consultation to evaluate your case for you. This meeting is an opportunity for you to make an informed decision about your future. There is no fee or obligation to partner with our law firm.
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