Negligence has different meanings for different people but has a specific meaning in the law and as such is considered a term of art for the legal profession. At its core, it is uniquely defined as a series of elements of proof: (1) Duty; (2) Breach of duty; (3) Causation; and (4) Damages. Each element must be factually proven. Did an alleged wrongdoer have a duty to act or not act in a certain way? Did the alleged wrongdoer fail to act or not act in that way? Did the alleged wrongdoer’s actions or failure to act cause a victim injury or damages? If the answer is yes to each, the alleged wrongdoer is considered to be negligent. This uniquely defined term of art is universally known and understood by every second-year laws student and lawyer in the United States. In Arizona courts, however, this universally understood legal concept has been slightly altered and redefined as a result of the use of another term or concept called “fault.”
Arizona courts, through the use of standard jury instructions, have introduced the word “fault” to essentially replace part of the four elements of the universally understood definition of negligence. The term “fault” means negligence that is a cause of a victim’s injuries. Thus, the term “fault” is synonymous with elements 3 and 4 (causation and damages) of the concept of negligence. This has effectively relegated the concept of negligence to mean elements 1 and 2 (duty and breach) of the negligence definition.
What does this mean? When using the term negligence, it should be understood as answering only the following questions: Did an alleged wrongdoer have a duty to act or not act in a certain way? And, did an alleged wrongdoer fail to act or not act in that way? In other words, when the concept of negligence is used, the focus is on the conduct of a person and answers the ultimate question: Did a person do something wrong? When we use the term fault we are not asking whether a person did something wrong- we are asking the question- did the person that did something wrong cause a victim to be injured? It is easiest to understand it in practice and I have set forth a simple fact pattern to demonstrate the concept.
Driver A fails to control his vehicle and rear-ends Driver B. Driver B claims he is injured and sues Driver A. Driver A admits he is negligent but argues that he is not at fault. Thus, Driver A admits he had a duty to control his vehicle and failed to do so. He admits he is a wrongdoer. However, by denying he is at fault, Driver A is asserting that despite being the wrongdoer (i.e. he is negligent) his conduct did not injure Driver B or did not cause the injuries that Driver B is claiming. Driver A could win against Driver B, even if Driver A admits negligence, but a jury determines Driver A is not at fault (if Driver B does not prove he was injured or that if he was injured it was not due to Driver A’s negligence).