Gross Negligence

The legal term gross negligence refers to an act showing a severe and reckless disregard for the lives or safety of another person. While ordinary negligence involves the failure to provide an adequate level of care or caution, gross negligence is far more severe in its level of apathy or indifference. Even in cases where a victim cannot bring sue someone for regular negligence, he can still bring a case for gross negligence. To explore this concept, consider the gross negligence definition.

Definition of Gross Negligence


  1. An act marked by total disregard for the rights and/or safety of others, and with complete indifference to the consequences of the act.

Origin of Negligence

1300-1350      Middle English

What is Gross Negligence

Gross negligence refers to an act taken without exercising even the most basic amount of care owed to others. Such an act involves a deliberate disregard for the safety or well being of another person. Gross negligence does not refer to acts undertaken with intent to harm another, but acts for which the perpetrator knew, or should have known, would result in injury or damages to another person. Such acts may be seen by the courts as bordering on intentional conduct, depending on the level of recklessness involved.

Example 1:

John is taken into surgery to have his appendix removed. Following the surgery, John develops a high fever and other symptoms which have the nursing staff concerned. Upon examination, it is determined that the surgeon accidentally left a surgical sponge inside his abdomen, which requires a second surgery for removal. John’s surgeon has acted negligently by failing to ensure all of the sponges were accounted for before ending the first surgery. While this is upsetting, it is something that occasionally occurs.

Example 2:

John is taken into surgery to have his appendix removed. When he wakes up after the surgery, he discovers the surgeon has confused him with another patient, and has amputated his foot, instead of removing his appendix. The surgeon and hospital staff in this case has committed gross negligence, as any reasonable person would see that his first step should be to identify the patient on whom he is about to operate. The second step should be to confirm the type of surgery that patient needs, or at least realize he was amputating a healthy limb.

Example of Gross Negligence

A basic rule of society and law holds that everyone has a duty to take “reasonable care” to avoid causing injury or damages to another. “Reasonable care” means taking steps any reasonable person would take to ensure no harm is caused to another. When someone fails to reasonable care, and someone suffers injuries or damages, he may be held civilly liable. If, on the other hand, that person not only fails to be reasonably careful, but acts with a recklessness that gives reasonable people pause, or with a willful and callous disregard for the safety or health of another, it may be deemed gross negligence.

  • Example of a Non-Negligent Accident – The community soccer league plays soccer every Thursday and Saturday night at the local park, where friends and families gather to cheer the teams on. Brent kicks a ball that strikes a man standing near the sideline, causing a head injury. The players are taking reasonable care by playing at the soccer field, rather than in someone’s yard, and hard-kicked balls going astray are just a part of the game. Because of this, the players are not guilty of negligence.
  • Example of Negligence – The soccer league needed more parking space for spectators, and so marks off a small stretch of property that is very close to one end of the field. During the first game after the new parking space is put into use, a player kicks the ball past the goal, into a windshield, breaking it. The league had failed to take reasonable care to ensure cars parked near the event would be out of range of play. Having acted negligently in choosing a spot to park cars, the league may be held responsible for the damages.
  • Example of Gross Negligence – During one of the soccer games mentioned above, Grant fetches the ball Brent had kicked off the field, and in his exuberance, grabbed a metal lawn chair sitting on the sidelines, and spiked it, hitting another bystander. Throwing chairs is not a reasonably anticipated act during a soccer game, and Grant not only failed to look for bystanders, but acted recklessly in throwing the chair, with no regard for the safety of others. Grant has committed gross negligence.

Liability Waivers and Gross Negligence

People are asked to sign liability waivers before being allowed to take place in a host of everyday activities, from participating in a school sports program, to seeing a doctor. For a number of years, laypeople were under the misconception that a liability waiver “isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” As the courts began striking down claims of liability against providers of varied services, this notion was replaced with a belief by providers that a liability waiver amounts to blanket protection in any situation.

When an individual signs a liability waiver, he is agreeing to not hold the service provider responsible for any liability for injuries or damages resulting from the provider’s negligence. While such a waiver does relieve a provider from liability due to common mistakes, faults, or errors that occur, assuming the provider took a reasonable amount of care to prevent the mistake. Liability waivers do not, however, apply to issues of gross negligence, willful or reckless conduct, or acts undertaken with the intent to cause harm.

For example:

UpClimb rock climbing camp hosts rock climbing excursions for people of all ages and skill levels. On Friday morning, Chuck does a routine check of the climbing equipment to be used for a camp over the weekend, which will be attended by kids ages 12-14. Chuck discovers that the clasp on one of the helmets does not hold securely, but because he could make it hold, he tossed the helmet in with the rest of the kids’ equipment.

Saturday afternoon, while climbing a 30-foot rock face, Johnny, the 12-year old boy who was wearing the damaged helmet, fell from the rock, landing on his head. Johnny’s helmet, not held securely, had twisted to one side, allowing Johnny’s unprotected head to impact the rock on the ground. Johnny suffered a severe concussion which, doctor’s say, could leave him with long-term problems.

Although Johnny’s parents had signed a liability waiver when they registered their son for the camp, it would not likely protect the camp in this situation. While accidents happen, the camp and its employees have a responsibility to make every effort to ensure their customers’ safety. Although Chuck went through the motions of the mandatory equipment check, he did not take it seriously, and allowed a damaged piece of equipment to be used. Johnny’s parents may file a civil lawsuit under the tort of gross negligence. If successful, they may be awarded money to pay for Johnny’s medical bills, as well as other monetary damages.

Gross Negligence and Medical Malpractice

Many states have taken steps to limit medical malpractice lawsuits, making it more difficult, and less profitable, to sue a medical provider. Successful lawsuits commonly involve gross negligence in providing medical care. Most medical malpractice cases require the use of expert witnesses, such as other doctors, to explain why the care provided was grossly negligent.

In some situations, a malpractice case may proceed without expert witnesses, on the legal doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which means “the thing speaks for itself.” In such a case, the conduct is so reckless, or the mistake so great, that it would be obvious even to a person with no medical training. An example of this would be a surgeon who amputates the wrong leg, or a nurse who ignores a hospital patient’s red allergy bracelet, and administers a medication to which he is allergic, causing a severe allergic reaction.

Although all medical providers require patients to sign liability waivers before they will be treated, such a waiver would not protect a provider against such blatantly negligent acts.

Legal Consequences to Gross Negligence

In the majority of ordinary negligence claims, the plaintiff is awarded compensatory damages if the court rules in their favor. This compensation comes in the form of monetary damages in order to reimburse victims for their medical costs, lost wages, court costs, and losses. In gross negligence claims, a court can award punitive damages depending on the facts of the case.

Punitive damages are designed to prevent the defendant from continuing to engage in dangerous behaviors. Punitive damages often come in the form of very high monetary awards, though some states place limits on the amount a plaintiff can collect. In some cases, criminal charges can also be brought against the individual acting in gross negligence.

Defenses to Gross Negligence

Gross negligence is a civil wrong committed against a person or entity, and is subject to penalties in a civil lawsuit. When bringing a civil lawsuit for gross negligence, the plaintiff needs to show that the defendant had some duty to show a reasonable amount of care toward the plaintiff, and that his deliberate or reckless action caused the plaintiff’s damages.

When defending against a gross negligence lawsuit, a defendant may attempt to nullify one or more of the plaintiff’s claim. Common defenses to gross negligence include:

  • The defendant behaved in a reasonable manner, given the circumstances surrounding the incident
  • The defendant did not owe a duty toward the plaintiff
  • The defendant did not cause the plaintiff’s damages
  • The plaintiff’s own conduct contributed to his own damages (referred to as “contributory negligence”)
  • The plaintiff knew the activity which led to his damages was a dangerous activity, yet chose to engage in the activity anyway (referred to as “assumption of risk”)

Gross Negligence Leads to Death

On June 25, 2009 iconic pop-star Michael Jackson died in his home in Los Angeles, California. His doctor, Conrad Murray, had attempted to resuscitate him, but those attempts failed. Attempts by paramedics also failed. Autopsy results showed that Jackson had large amounts of propofol, a powerful anesthetic, in his system, which caused him to go into cardiac arrest. The city coroner ruled the death a homicide, after which Dr. Conrad Murray was arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter.

It was discovered, during the investigation, that Dr. Murray was providing Jackson with medications to help him calm down and sleep. The doctor claimed that some nights, Jackson begged him for the medication. On the night Jackson died, he had taken eight Ativan tablets and a dose of propofol. These medications led to his death. Prosecutors claim that the doctor acted recklessly, without taking reasonable care when administering propofol to Jackson in his home.

The criminal case against Dr. Murray was based on the prosecution’s belief that, while he clearly had no intent to cause Jackson’s death, his administration and prescribing practices were breached the standard of care other reasonable doctors would have maintained in a similar circumstance. This breach was so reckless as to rise to the level of criminal negligence. On November 7, 2011, the court found Murray guilty and sentenced him to four years in prison. He was released less than two years later.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil LawsuitA lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Liable Responsible by law; to be held legally answerable for an act or omission.
  • Monetary Damages – A court order awarding a specified amount of money to a person for damages suffered due to the acts of another.
  • Negligent – Failure to act as, or to exercise the level of care of, another reasonably prudent person would be expected to act in similar circumstances.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Punitive Damages – Money awarded to the injured party above and beyond their actual damages, in cases where the defendant’s actions are malicious, or so reckless as to give a reasonable person pause.
  • Recklessness – Rash, careless, or wanton conduct that ignores the possibility of dangerous consequences.
  • Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.