Negligence

Reviewed by Stefan Tirschler

Updated September 6, 2022

Noun

neg·li·gence | ˈne-gli-jən(t)s

Definition: The failure to exercise a reasonable level of care in doing something.

The damage was due to his negligence.

What is negligence?

Negligence is the failure to exercise a level of care that would be expected of a reasonable person in any given situation. It’s a term that pops up often when you’re talking about insurance or law.

Negligence can come from an action or a failure to act.

And it’s important to note: negligence is never intentional. If you hurt someone or cause damage on purpose, it’s not going to fall under any definition of negligence.

Now, there’s a lot to unpack with the definition of negligence. First, we need to establish what a “reasonable person” is. When you’re trying to decide if someone was negligent or not, the first thing you need to do is ask, “what would a reasonable person have done in this situation?”

Our reasonable person is a theoretical soul of average intelligence and average prudence—they’re not overly careful, but they’re not reckless either. The exact standard of “reasonable” is flexible depending on the situation. But, in most scenarios, you can imagine what a typical person might do (or not do).

Let’s look at an example situation:

Example

Every autumn, Mike prunes all the trees in his yard. He collects the trimmed branches and burns them. Mike always gets a burning permit first, and he follows all the rules about the size and location of his burn.

Today, he’s ready to have his fire. But the weather isn’t cooperating; there are strong gusts of wind forecast throughout the day. Mike needs to burn his trimmings on a weekend, since he needs to watch the fire. He doesn’t want to wait until the following weekend, so he decides to go ahead and light it up.

Once the fire’s blazing, a strong wind kicks up and blows some flaming debris onto his neighbour’s old, dry wooden fence. It catches fire immediately. Mike puts out the fire with his garden hose, but not before it’s scorched a long section of the fence.

Do you think that Mike acted like a reasonable person in this example?

Probably not.

He may have taken the time to get a permit and followed the regulations as required, but he knew it was supposed to be windy and went ahead with the fire anyway. While he didn’t intend to set his neighbour’s fence on fire, through his actions, he did so.

And so, we can say that Mike was negligent.

Negligence doesn’t just apply when you do something a reasonable person wouldn’t. The reverse is also true: if you don’t do what a reasonable person would do, you could also call it negligence. Like if you see your toilet overflowing, but you decide to walk away instead of shutting off the water.

There are other forms of negligence, too. For example, we expect that companies take reasonable steps to design and manufacture their products to be safe. Failure to do so is negligence on their part.

Or, more to the point (since it relates to home insurance), is premises liability. This refers to the fact that you have a duty to make your home reasonably safe for visitors. Suppose you fail to do so, and a visitor gets injured at your home. In that case, you could be found negligent (and legally responsible for their injuries).

Example

Jessica lives in an old house that’s mostly still in decent shape.

But the wood planks that form her front steps are getting old and starting to rot. She usually enters her house through the side door, so she doesn’t think about the front steps that often. She doesn’t think it’s worth the cost or effort of fixing them up.

One day, a delivery person comes by to drop off a package. On their way up the front steps, their leg busts right through one of the rotting planks, badly injuring their ankle. They need to take a couple of weeks off work to recuperate.

Jessica would likely be found negligent in this example, even though she had no direct role in the delivery person’s injury. Because it’s Jessica’s home, she’s responsible for making it reasonably safe for visitors—and a rotting front step is not reasonably safe by any measure.

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Negligence and home insurance

There’s a link between negligence and home insurance; it’s called liability coverage.

Most home insurance policies include liability coverage, which responds to help cover the insured’s legal costs when they’re accused of negligence. If you’re found guilty of negligence, you’re said to be liable—hence, liability coverage.

Liability coverage, when it applies, will cover the legal costs of defending a lawsuit in court. It will also help cover any compensatory damages you’re ordered to pay if you’re found guilty of negligence. As the name suggests, compensatory damages are those meant to compensate the party harmed by your negligence.

And here’s something important:

Liability coverage only covers compensatory damages; it will never cover punitive or exemplary damages, which a court may award if it decides to make an example of you. (Courts sometimes do this to discourage extremely poor behaviour in the future.)

It’s also worth pointing out that liability coverage responds to cover the costs of mounting a defence even in cases where you might not have been negligent, but someone sues you just the same.

In home insurance, there are basically two forms of liability coverage: personal and premises. Personal liability is for when you’re accused of negligence for your actions (or inactions) anywhere in the world. Premises liability is for negligence that relates to your home occupancy—like the rotten step example above.

The important points

  • Negligence is the failure to exercise the level of care that a reasonable person would exercise in any given situation.
  • Negligence only applies to unintentional acts.
  • Home insurance policies often include liability coverage, which helps the insured cover legal costs if they’re accused or found guilty of negligence.

Looking for another insurance definition? Look it up in The Insurance Glossary, home to dozens of easy-to-follow definitions for the most common insurance terms. Or, get an online quote in under 5 minutes and find out how affordable personalized home insurance can be.

About the expert: Stefan Tirschler

Stefan is responsible for underwriting leadership, market expansion, and product research and development for Square One's operations. Stefan has earned his Fellow Chartered Insurance Professional designation, and maintains a level 2 general insurance license in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. Stefan is also an Education Committee member and CIP/GIE instructor for the Insurance Institute of Canada.

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