What is the Difference Between a Mistake and Negligence in Arizona?

In a motor vehicle accident — or any other personal injury scenario, for that matter — it can be rather difficult for the injured victim to determine whether the defendant simply made an understandable mistake, or whether the defendant acted negligently, thus exposing them to potential damages liability.  In fact, this uncertainty often discourages injury victims from bringing a lawsuit against the defendant and thereby securing damages to compensate them for their various injuries.

If you have been injured due to the conduct of another person (or entity), and you believe that the defendant’s conduct violated the standard of care — given the circumstances — then you may be entitled to compensation for your injuries.  Injury claims often seem simple upon first impression.  In reality, however, your injury lawsuit can be complicated by a number of issues, such as the presence of multiple hostile defendants, evidentiary challenges, and more.  Make sure to consult with an experienced Arizona personal injury attorney for assistance.

If simple mistakes do not give rise to liability (except in product defect litigation, and other limited circumstances), and negligence does, wherein lies the difference between these two concepts?  At what point does a mistake “become” negligence and grant the injured party a right to sue and recover damages?

The answer to these difficult questions is embedded in the concept of “standard of care,” so let’s consider some of the fundamentals of the standard of care and how negligent conduct is borne from the violation of applicable standards.

Violation of the Standard of Care

In Arizona, as in other states, individuals and entities owe others a duty to exercise reasonable care given the circumstances.  This is a basic principle of tort law.  Failure to act in accordance with one’s duty of care will constitute a violation of the standard of care (applicable to the situation) and give rise to negligence liability.  To sum it up: a mistake gives rise to negligence when the mistake violates the standard of care.

As this legal terminology can be somewhat confusing, it’s best clarified with an example.

Imagine that you have been injured in a motor vehicle accident.  You were a pedestrian crossing the street at a legal, marked crosswalk, when the defendant collided with you, thus causing you to suffer significant injuries.  Now, suppose that the defendant-driver argues that they did not see you while rounding the curve that opened up into the crosswalk, as there were uncut plants that were obscuring their vision as they made the turn.  Given the circumstances, one could argue that the driver did not actually violate their standard of care (if they were otherwise driving in a safe manner).  On the other hand, you might be entitled to sue the property owner whose plants obscured the roadway.

The standard of care is fundamentally circumstantial.  In other words, it can change depending on the nature of the situation.  For example, the standard of care that applies to a professional truck driver who is driving for work-purposes may be higher than the standard of care that applies to a normal driver.

A number of different factors can influence the standard of care: the defendant’s age, experiences, training, and physical/mental capacity, the obviousness of the danger, the suddenness of the danger, the activity in which the defendant and plaintiff were involved, any regulations relating to the activity, and more.

In some cases, violation of a rule may give rise to “negligence per se.”  Essentially, the defendant’s violation of a rule may automatically give rise to an assumption of negligence.  As the plaintiff, you need only show that their negligence then caused your injuries.  For example, if the defendant-driver was violating some traffic rule when they collided with you, then you will not have to show that they were acting negligently, but only that their negligent act (i.e., violating the traffic rule) contributed to your injuries.