Gross negligence results when a person or entity acts in a manner that is reckless or that willfully disregards the safety of others. It is more severe than mere negligence, which is simply the failure to exercise a reasonable amount of care. For example, if a semi-truck driver runs a stop sign and hits a car, the driver may be found liable for negligence. Suppose, however, that the driver had also been drinking alcohol and was well over the legal limit. In that circumstance, the driver may be found liable for gross negligence because the driver failed to use even a slight amount of care in operating the semi-truck.
In order to prove gross negligence liability, a plaintiff generally needs to demonstrate several elements. First, the plaintiff typically needs to show that the defendant owes a duty of care to the plaintiff or to the general public to act in a certain manner. For instance, suppose that a plaintiff is going rock climbing with an outdoor adventure company, who is supplying all of the climbing equipment as well as an instructor. The adventure company would owe the plaintiff a duty to ensure that any equipment being provided is in working order.
Secondly, the plaintiff typically needs to show that the defendant blatantly and indifferently violated his or her duty to the plaintiff. This element is different from negligence, which merely requires the plaintiff to prove that the defendant failed to use reasonable care. In the rock climbing example above, for instance, suppose that the instructor carelessly forgot to properly fasten the plaintiff’s rock climbing equipment and that the plaintiff falls and breaks her legs as a result. The instructor and the company may be liable for negligence. If, however, the instructor provided equipment that he knew might break at any time, the instructor and the company may be liable for gross negligence.
The third element of gross negligence requires showing that the plaintiff suffered an injury because the defendant violated his or her duty to the plaintiff. In the rock climbing situation, the plaintiff would need to show that she suffered an injury as a result of the instructor providing faulty equipment. Since the plaintiff broke both legs due to the faulty equipment, she would be able to establish this element.
The final element of gross negligence is causation. The plaintiff must show that his or her injury was a foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s behavior. In the case of the rock climbing injury, causation would be present if the instructor gave the plaintiff equipment that the instructor knew was faulty. It is foreseeable that faulty equipment can result in equipment failure and injury to a rock climber. As a result, the instructor and the adventure company would be liable to the plaintiff for her damages.