Degrees of negligence are categories, or grades, of negligence, ranging from slight negligence to gross, willful, reckless, wanton negligence. These classes have been determined by statutes and judicial decisions and are the measure of negligence necessary to result in liability.

Negligence, as a legal concept, was first established regarding professional community members, such as blacksmiths or doctors, who had a particular responsibility to the community to provide honest services. If an individual breached this obligation, he or she was found guilty of negligence. In the past, the definition of negligence was much broader and associated with any sort of breach of the peace, particularly resulting from the intentional actions of wrongdoers.

Early lawmakers focused more on this purposeful wrongdoing and less on those who failed to act. As a result, negligence law developed slowly and was centered around injuries that were considered to be a result of indirect causes. The Industrial Revolution introduced machinery into daily life, which resulted in negligence becoming a large part of the legal system.

Ordinary Negligence

Currently, the law's "reasonable person" standard means that people are required to conduct themselves in a way that a reasonably careful person would do in a similar circumstance. Ordinary negligence results when an individual fails to do something a reasonably careful person would do or does something a reasonably careful person would not do in that type of situation. In an ordinary negligence case, the wrongdoer was not aware of the failure or that his action (or lack of action) could harm another person.

Reasonable measures are required by negligence law to protect oneself and others from harm. The law imposes an obligation of reasonable care. If someone breaches this obligation, the harmed party may be able to recover damages. The ordinary negligence standard is applicable to many claims, even in tragic injury accidents and severe defective product situations. The negligence could also be due to something inadvertent or simply forgotten. For example, a homeowner who cuts a tree limb that damages his neighbor's shed might be found guilty of ordinary negligence. Again, it's not necessary for the person to intend to cause harm in order for negligence to occur.

Gross Negligence

To be considered gross negligence, the act must be significantly more impactful than ordinary negligence. Gross negligence is very great negligence or the lack of any diligence or care. Regarding other people, it amounts to pure indifference. Judicial courts have defined gross negligence as a heedless and palpable violation of the legal obligation to others' rights. This means that the wrongdoer has been completely indifferent to his actions to the point that it displays an utter disregard for the rights or well-being of others. Again, the intent to harm is not necessary for gross negligence, but a lack of concern as to whether harm might result characterizes this category of negligence.

For example, a vehicle driver going 10 miles over the speed limit may be considered to be acting in a way that constitutes ordinary negligence. A vehicle driver who drives 90 miles per hour through a crowded urban area may be acting in a degree of gross negligence.

Willful, Wanton, Reckless Conduct and Negligence

Willful, wanton, reckless conduct involves a degree of conduct just below actual harmful intent. This type of negligence is defined by a high likelihood that significant harm will come to another person. To be considered willful, wanton, reckless conduct, the wrongdoer must be aware of and intentionally ignore a high-risk factor. The risk must also involve a high probability of causing significant harm.

An example of willful, wanton, reckless conduct would be if a factory supervisor instructed a worker to clean a dangerous piece of machinery while it was operating, which then resulted in permanent injury to the employee's fingers after they became caught in the gears. Another example might be a radioactive waste storage company that intentionally stores dangerous radioactive waste in unapproved containers near a residential neighborhood and lacks any kind of safety plan. In addition, if a person drinks alcohol to a predictably intoxicated point and then operates a vehicle, it could very well result in the degree of willful, wanton, reckless conduct, which could result in punitive damages.

If you need help understanding degrees of negligence or need to consult a negligence lawyer, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.