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Gross Negligence: Really Bad Negligence or Something More?

By Stephen M. Bennett May 31, 2017

Personal Injury

Gross Negligence is a rare but important concept in North Carolina personal injury law as it is one of the few ways a plaintiff can defeat the affirmative defense of contributory negligence. However, as a litigation attorney, few concepts are more difficult to explain and articulate than gross negligence. At first blush, one may think that adding the qualifier “gross” in front of “negligence” is just a way to delineate the difference between a “bad” and “really bad” result. But it’s not quite so simple.

What is Negligence?

As we discussed in a prior blog post, negligence is the breach of a duty of care that a person owes to another that results in damages. The common application of negligence in North Carolina is in a typical motor vehicle collision. Every driver has the duty to exercise a reasonable degree of care towards another driver. Should one driver’s inattentiveness or poor decision-making cause a collision that injures another person, that driver causing the collision is negligent.

What is Gross Negligence?

In contrast to negligence, in North Carolina, gross negligence is defined as “wanton conduct done with conscious or reckless disregard for the rights and safety of others.” Yancey v. Lea, 354 N.C. 48 (2001). More specifically, wanton conduct is an act that is done needlessly and which manifests a reckless indifference to the rights of others; conduct that falls somewhere between ordinary negligence and intentional conduct. Id.

In the motor vehicle context, North Carolina courts have generally limited a finding of gross negligence to when at least one of the following factors is present: (1) a driver is intoxicated; (2) a driver is driving at excessive speeds; or (3) a driver is engaged in racing competition. Each of those three factors have one thing in common, the knowing creation of a dangerous condition and the subsequent disregard of that condition. In fact, outside of the motor vehicle context, North Carolina courts focus on exactly that question, as a person’s knowledge of a dangerous condition and their subsequent disregard for that dangerous condition thereafter is the determinative factor in regards to gross negligence.

How does Gross Negligence differ from Negligence?

The real difference between negligence and gross negligence is not in the result of the conduct or how bad the conduct seems. The difference lies in the mindset of the person performing the conduct themselves. Negligence is often the result of a simple mistake or “accident.” It can be something as innocuous as a momentary glance away from the traffic in front of you. While the effects of a person’s negligent act can be devastating and the damages great, a finding of gross negligence requires much more. In fact, the true marker of gross negligence lies in the knowledge by the person in question, and the actions they took thereafter. If a person knew they were engaged in a dangerous conduct or knew of the existence of a situation and then took steps to continue forward down a path of dangerous behavior despite their knowledge otherwise, a finding of gross negligence may well be justified.

How can we help?

Have you been injured because of conduct that you think rises to the level of gross negligence? At Helms Robison Lee & Bennett, we have attorneys that can help navigate the issues of both negligence and gross negligence and offer sound advice and suggestions. If you are interested in scheduling a consultation please contact R. Kenneth Helms, Jr. or Stephen M. Bennett at 704.289.4577.

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