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What is the difference between negligence and recklessness?

The legal concept underlying many car accident personal injury lawsuits in Florida is that the behavior of the person alleged to have caused the injury was unreasonable under the circumstances that existed at the time of the accident. Two terms that are often used in connection with such unreasonable behavior are "negligence" and "recklessness." They are often used interchangeably, and from a legal standpoint they do have some similarities.

But negligence and recklessness are in fact two distinct wrongful behaviors, and proving that a defendant displayed one or the other in the course of causing a car crash may make a difference when it comes to seeking compensation in the form of money damages.

Negligence is a common basis of liability in car accident lawsuits. To prove it, the plaintiff must show that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care, breached that duty by acting in a way that the defendant either knew or should have known would cause harm to the plaintiff, and that harm to the plaintiff in fact occurred. Examples of negligent behavior are behaviors that are careless, inattentive, or incompetent. The idea is that the defendant "should have known better."

Recklessness is more serious than negligence because recklessness involves a state of mind on the part of the reckless driver that is more difficult to excuse. To act recklessly, the defendant must actually know of an unreasonable risk of harm to others, and cause harm to the plaintiff by acting in knowing disregard of that risk. Recklessness means not that the defendant should have known better, but did know better and went ahead regardless of that knowledge.

For example, driving 10 miles an hour faster than the speed limit maybe negligent, while drag-racing down a city street would be reckless. Being distracted behind the wheel may be negligent, while drinking and driving would be reckless. Failing to use a turn signal and changing lanes may be negligent, while knowingly running a stop sign or a red light would be reckless.

In a lawsuit involving a car accident, whether a defendant acted negligently or recklessly may not affect the actual or economic damages that a plaintiff may seek. But if the plaintiff is also seeking exemplary or punitive damages, then the plaintiff's case may be stronger if the plaintiff can show that the defendant acted recklessly instead of just negligently.

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