What is Negligence in an Auto Accident Case?

Most people know that you cannot sue after an auto accident case unless the other driver was negligent, but what is negligence?

It’s a legal term that takes hundreds of appellate cases and legal treatises to fully define. To complicate things further, there is criminal negligence and there is civil negligence, and there are different types of negligence in different types of civil cases…

In this article, I’m going to focus on what is negligence in the context of automobile accidents – what you must prove to recover damages after a car crash – including:

  • The legal definition of negligence in SC,
  • Comparative negligence in auto accidents,
  • Per-se negligence,
  • Gross negligence,
  • Intentional conduct, and
  • When you can get punitive damages.

What is Negligence?

What is negligence? To recover damages in an auto accident case, you will need to prove that:

  1. There was a legal duty owed to you by the defendant,
  2. They breached that duty,
  3. You suffered damages (injury), and
  4. The defendant’s breach of their duty was the proximate cause of your damages.

In the context of most auto accident cases, the duty owed to you by the defendant is to drive safely and not hurt other motorists or pedestrians…

That duty can be breached in many ways, including by:

  • Failing to keep a proper lookout,
  • Failing to obey traffic signals like a stoplight or stop sign,
  • Failing to yield the right of way,
  • Following too closely,
  • Driving while intoxicated, or
  • Violating any traffic laws that are intended to keep motorists safe.

If the defendant breached their duty of care to you and other motorists, and you were injured in the resulting crash, you are entitled to damages if their breach was the proximate cause of your damages…

What is proximate cause?

But for the defendant’s actions, you would not have been injured. If, but for the defendant running the red light, you would not have suffered a spinal cord injury, their breach is the proximate cause of your injury, and they are liable.


In most cases, the harm that results must have been foreseeable.

In the context of an auto accident, it is foreseeable that, if you are driving faster than the posted speed limit, you may cause an auto accident that could result in serious injury or death.

Or, if you get behind the wheel after drinking a case of beer, it is foreseeable that you may cause an accident that kills someone.

Standard of Care

Different types of civil cases have different standards of care – for example, a physician must follow the standard of care of a reasonable physician in his or her area of practice in their community.

In an auto accident case, the standard of care is that of a reasonable driver who is following all traffic laws and taking reasonable care not to cause harm.

For example, if a driver goes through a red light and T-bones your car in the intersection, they have violated the standard of care for a reasonable driver in several different ways including 1) failing to keep a proper lookout and 2) failing to obey traffic signals.

Per-Se Negligence

In some cases, you don’t have to prove negligence.

Per-se negligence is when the defendant violated a traffic law or any law that was designed to keep motorists safe on the highways.

For example, if the other driver was charged with and convicted of reckless driving for their conduct when they crashed into your car, they are per-se negligent and you will only need to prove the amount of your damages at trial.

What is Comparative Negligence?

What if you were also negligent?

SC follows a modified comparative negligence rule – if a jury finds that you were also negligent, they must then decide what percent you were negligent. If you are 50% or less negligent, you are still entitled to damages, but your recovery will be reduced by the percentage of negligence found by the jurors.

If you are found to be more than 50% negligent, you are barred from recovering anything.

For example, if you prove $200,000 in damages at trial, but the jurors find that you are 50% at fault in the accident, the court will reduce your recovery to $100,000. If you prove $200,000 in damages at trial, but the jurors find that you were 51% at fault in the accident, you will recover nothing.

Gross Negligence, Intentional Conduct, and Punitive Damages

If a defendant in SC was grossly negligent or if their conduct was intentional, you are entitled to recover punitive damages at trial.

Gross negligence is something more than the simple breach of a duty of care – it is the failure to exercise even slight care, or conduct that shows a reckless disregard for the lives and safety of other motorists.

Gross negligence can result in punitive damages against the defendant, although there are caps on punitive damages in SC:

  1. Punitive damages can be in an amount up to three times the amount of compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is greater,
  2. If the defendant’s actions could have subjected him or her to a felony, punitive damages can be up to four times the amount of compensatory damages or $2,000,000, whichever is greater, and
  3. If the defendant’s conduct was intended to harm the plaintiff, if the defendant has been convicted of a felony based on their conduct, or if the defendant was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, there are no caps on punitive damages.

Auto Accident Lawyers in Conway, SC

If you are hurt in an auto accident caused by another driver in Conway or Myrtle Beach, SC, consult with an experienced trial lawyer immediately who can help you to gather the evidence you need to prove liability and damages, to settle your claim for full and fair compensation, and to try your case to a jury if the insurance company doesn’t pay.

Call Johnny Gardner Law now at 843-248-7135 or send us an email through our website to find out how we can help.