Generally, a personal injury plaintiff must prove four elements to prevail in a negligence claim: duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages. However, in some cases, plaintiffs can take a “short cut” under the legal theory of “negligence per se.” Negligence per se is a Latin term that means negligence in and of itself. Under Washington D.C. law, negligence per se is applicable “where a particular statutory or regulatory standard is enacted to … prevent the type of accident that occurred.” Further, an “unexplained violation of that standard renders the defendant negligent as a matter of law.”
This means that the plaintiff must prove only that the statute was designed to protect against the type of harm caused in the accident, and that the defendant was the person or entity that engaged in the conduct. Therefore, when the facts of the case allow it, a plaintiff will almost always want to instruct the jury on negligence per se because it makes the plaintiff’s burden that much easier to meet.
For that reason, when a court erroneous instructs a jury on negligence per se, the defendant may have an issue on appeal because of the harm caused by the instruction. However, a recent D.C. Court of Appeals case held that an improper negligence per se instruction can be “redundant” rather than harmful in some cases, and does not always require reversal.
Sibert-Dean v. Metropolitan Area Transit Authority
The facts of the case are rather simple. The plaintiff was a passenger on a bus who was injured when the bus was involved in a crash. At trial, evidence suggested that the driver of the bus was distracted by a group of teenage girls at the time of the accident. The plaintiff pointed to two statutes, claiming that the violation of these statutes constituted negligence per se.
The trial court agreed and instructed the jury on negligence per se. However, on appeal the defendant argued that the instruction was improper because the statute the plaintiff cited merely restated the common-law duty to act in a way that is free of negligence. Thus, the defendant argued that the instruction was inappropriate because there was no reason for it, so it was redundant.
The court of appeals agreed and found that the instruction was given in error. However, rather than reverse the decision, the court of appeals found that the error was harmless because the instruction was merely redundant rather than prejudicial. This goes back to a guiding principle in appellate law. Generally, only harmful errors are corrected. If the error did not cause either party some kind of harm, there is no reason to go back and have the trial anew.
The Case’s Effect on D.C. Personal Injury Litigants
This case is fairly limited to its facts, but an extension of the legal doctrine used here can be helpful to plaintiffs in upholding their favorable verdicts on appeal.
Are You in Need of a D.C. Area Personal Injury Attorney?
If you have recently been injured in a serious D.C. accident, you should speak to a Washington D.C. accident attorney as soon as possible. Depending on the facts of your case, you may be entitled to a substantial monetary award. To find out more about the laws of negligence in Washington D.C., and to speak to a dedicated personal injury attorney, click here or call 410-654-3600 today.
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