Willful negligence is the type of negligence that is deliberate with the intentional disregard for others.

Negligence, Gross Negligence & Willful, Wanton Conduct

Negligence is caused by the failure to use reasonable care and comes in various degrees. Negligence is the failure to act in a way with prudence or reasonable care under the specific circumstances. For example, if an amusement park operator forgets to check if a rider's seat belt is secure and the person gets injured, the amusement park operator may be held responsible for negligence. Insurance policies usually cover negligence, but may not cover gross negligence. The malpractice provisions built into the healthcare system include willful negligence, which is the most severe and may include criminal prosecution.

Ordinary Negligence

The "reasonable person" guidance requires individuals to act in the same manner as a reasonably mindful person would under similar circumstances. Ordinary negligence arises when an individual acts in a way that a reasonably mindful person wouldn't, under comparable circumstances. 

Under negligence law, it is required that individuals take a reasonable measure to protect themselves and others from danger. The negligence law establishes a responsibility for reasonable care. Any person who doesn't follow this general responsibility and harms another individual may be financially liable for damages. Ordinary negligence applies to:

Gross Negligence

Gross negligence results from conduct that is substantially more divergent than ordinary negligence. Additionally, it is more difficult to claim or prove gross negligence. It involves:

  • Conduct that is a significant leap from the guidelines by which a competent and reasonable person would act
  • A serious or high degree of negligence
  • Behavior which was out of line from a normal, reasonable person
    • Typical care is not taken
    • An absence of any kind of diligence
    • No care is taken whatsoever

Gross negligence is considered so serious as it illustrates a thoughtless disregard for others. To return to the amusement park example, if an operator allows passengers on a ride that they know is broken, the operator may be prosecuted for gross negligence. 

Courts have characterized gross negligence as a reckless and unmistakable abuse of duty to the legal rights of others. Under a wrongful death statute, a display of gross negligence is mandatory in order to qualify for punitive damages. For example, if a driver of a car was driving at 100 mph and passengers asked them to slow down, but the driver kept the same speed or sped up which resulted in a crash, the driver could be found grossly negligent.

Gross negligence may be found in the healthcare field when surgeons remove the wrong limb or leave instruments inside of a patient's body after surgery.

Willful, Wanton, Reckless Conduct

Falling directly below actual intent in the misconduct hierarchy is willful, wanton, reckless conduct. Willful misconduct is considered further along the misconduct spectrum as:

  • Intentionally or voluntarily committed
  • Reckless or intentional

When trying to prove willful, wanton, reckless behavior, a prosecutor will normally try to provide evidence that significant harm was the result of the defendant's actions.

There are two main differences between negligence and willful, wanton, reckless conduct:

  1. The defendant intentionally or knowingly disregarded all risk
  2. The risk would most likely result in substantial harm

Plaintiffs looking to seek punitive damages from injuries must prove that the defendant engaged in willful, wanton, or reckless behavior. For example, if a machine operator was told by their employer to clean a machine while it was running resulting in the employee to suffer an injury, the employer may be charged with reckless conduct.

Willful misconduct and gross negligence are similar concepts but are not invariably the same thing. Insurance policies vary by state, but generally state that acts of:

  • Negligence are covered
  • Gross negligence are not covered
  • Willful misconduct are not covered

For example, if a restaurant delivery service is involved in a hit and run accident, the insurance company may contend that the driver was willfully negligent rather than just negligent. If so, the restaurant may be required to pay for any damages even though they were covered for gross negligence. This is because although negligence and gross negligence were covered by the policy, willful misconduct was not.

Negligence in Degrees

The instructions given to juries usually indicate the various degrees of negligence. Many times though, it may not be so clear-cut. Minor variations in how the law is interpreted by a jury member may drastically change the outcome of the case, along with the punitive damages provided. It's important for anyone that's been injured in either an accident or otherwise, to seek the help of an experienced lawyer. 

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