What Is Willful Negligence in Injury Claims?
Successful personal injury claims in New Jersey require proof of negligent wrongdoing by the defendant. To prove ordinary negligence, the injured party, or plaintiff, must establish four elements. First, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed them a duty of care. The duty owed depends on the defendant’s type of relationship with the plaintiff and changes depending on the situation. Second, the defendant must breach this duty by failing to uphold certain standards of care. Third, this failure, or the breach, must cause the plaintiff’s injuries. And fourth, the plaintiff must have suffered actual harm or damages because of the defendant’s breach. When a plaintiff proves these four elements, they may be entitled to seek monetary damages for their injuries.
But what happens when a defendant’s willful misconduct or reckless conduct causes a person harm? In New Jersey, willful negligence occurs when the defendant knowingly engages in reckless conduct and, in doing so, intentionally disregards any risk of harm to others. Willful negligence is several steps above ordinary negligence and is considered more severe than even gross negligence. The negligent behavior can be so egregious it can sometimes warrant punitive damages on top of typical compensatory damages.
Willful, Gross, and Ordinary Negligence
Generally, negligence occurs when a party fails to use reasonable care. In ordinary negligence cases, parties that fail to act as another reasonable party would in the same situation and cause harm to another person can be liable for damages. Ordinary negligence applies in most personal injury cases.
On the other hand, gross negligence results from conduct that is substantially more neglectful than ordinary negligence. In New Jersey, reckless, willful, or wanton misconduct all constitute gross negligence. However, according to the New Jersey Supreme Court, gross negligence may also occur from “an act or omission, which is more than ordinary negligence, but less than willful or intentional misconduct.”
Willful negligence cases are not as common as ordinary or lesser gross negligence cases. In willful or reckless negligence cases, the harms the defendant causes are also more likely to result in serious injury or death.
New Jersey Administrative Code § 17:3-6.5 defines willful negligence as:
- Deliberate act or deliberate failure to act; or
- Such conduct as evidences reckless indifference to safety; or
- Intoxication, operating as the proximate cause of injury.
In other words, willful negligence is conduct that intentionally disregards another person’s health, safety, and welfare. And it typically involves behavior that is voluntary, intentional, and reckless.
For example, a court may hold a drunk driver who seriously injures someone else liable for both reckless indifference to safety and intoxication under New Jersey law. As in drunk driving, a defendant’s actions do not always need to have been malicious to succeed in a willful or reckless negligence case. But a defendant’s actions must be deliberate.
Examples of Willful Negligence
An intentional disregard for others characterizes willful negligence. A defendant does not have to act callously or with the intent to harm the injured to be willfully negligent. But in most cases, they must have understood the potential consequences of their actions and intentionally disregarded them. Several examples of willful and reckless misconduct are:
- Attempting to downplay or disguise a known safety hazard at an amusement park;
- Deliberately assigning a worker broken tools or a piece of equipment known to malfunction;
- Requiring a welder to work without protective eyewear;
- Car crashes caused by a driver under the influence of alcohol or drugs;
- Driving a car at 100 mph in a known 15 mph school crossing zone;
- Intentionally ignoring a patron’s cries for help when they are pinned between objects, bleeding, or suffering from a serious injury on business premises; and
- A surgeon who operates under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
If you are seeking punitive damages as well as compensatory damages in New Jersey, you must show that the defendant’s actions rose to the level of willful or reckless negligence to succeed.
Punitive Damages for Willful Negligence
When someone’s willful negligence injures you, a judge may award economic compensatory damages like medical expenses, lost wages, and increased living expenses. Damages may also include non-economic compensatory damages like pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life.
But an injured party may also request punitive damages for exceptionally willful behavior. A court will assign punitive damages to punish a defendant for their extreme negligent conduct.
To seek punitive damages, an injured party must be able to prove that the defendant’s behavior was particularly egregious. A plaintiff must also request punitive damages in a separate bifurcated trial after a court has awarded compensatory damages.
Proving willful negligence is similar to ordinary and gross negligence, except a court will also consider:
- The likelihood, at the relevant time, that serious harm would arise from the defendant's conduct;
- The defendant’s awareness of reckless disregard of the likelihood that the serious harm at issue would arise from the defendant’s conduct;
- The conduct of the defendant upon learning that its initial conduct would likely cause harm; and
- The duration of the conduct or any concealment of it by the defendant.
Once a court decides to award punitive damages, it will determine the amount. However, New Jersey law limits punitive damages to five times the amount of compensatory damages or $350,000, whichever is greater.
If You’ve Been Injured, Call O’Connor, Parsons, Lane & Noble
If you were injured in a hospital, workplace, vehicle, or another location because of someone else’s willful negligence, our award-winning attorneys and staff are ready to fight for you. At O’Connor, Parsons, Lane & Noble, we have a history of obtaining results for people who’ve been hurt by serious misconduct.
Our experienced team will work determinedly to help you win the settlement or verdict you deserve. We know how to fight for what you’re owed but never lose sight of why we’re fighting — you. Compassion for our clients and approachability are also of equal importance to us. Contact us today to schedule your free consultation.