In Illinois and elsewhere, negligence is what lawyers refer to as a “tort,” which is a legal doctrine that forces people who behave carelessly to compensate their injured victims. Civil lawsuits are not designed to punish; the defendant does not go to prison if the plaintiff wins. Instead, the court may order the defendant to pay a certain amount of money calculated to fairly represent the value of the plaintiff’s injuries.


To win at trial, plaintiffs must prove four basic elements to establish a tort:

  • that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty
  • that the defendant breached the duty owed to the plaintiff
  • that the plaintiff suffered an injury, and
  • that the defendant’s breach was both the actual and the proximate cause of the injury.

Civil plaintiffs do not need to prove those elements beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, a plaintiff merely needs to prove the case based on a preponderance of the evidence.

Causation is often the most difficult element to prove because of the concept of proximate cause. Actual cause, commonly referred to as but-for causation, only requires the plaintiff to show that the injury would not have happened if the defendant had obeyed the law. Proximate cause, however, requires the plaintiff to demonstrate the fairness of holding the defendant liable for the injury.

For example, imagine that a truck driver crashed into a stone statue standing at an intersection in the middle of a small town. If the statue fell and struck a pedestrian, the driver’s carelessness would likely be considered the proximate cause of the injury. Now imagine that the next day, a business gave two of its employees directions to a construction site and directed them to turn right at the statue. The two employees had an accident after losing their way because of the missing statute. The first driver probably would not be legally responsible for causing the two employees’ injuries.

Comparative Negligence

The law protects a victim’s right to compensation for injuries caused by someone else’s careless conduct. Even if the victim were partially to blame, an attorney may be able to help with financial recovery under the theory of comparative negligence. Under this doctrine, each party must pay for his or her portion of the blame when an accident has multiple causes. For example, if a truck driver runs a stop sign and hits a pedestrian who was jaywalking, the jury might find that the driver was 60 percent at fault. If the pedestrian’s injuries were worth $100,000, the driver would have to pay $60,000.

How an Attorney Can Help

Civil lawsuits and torts are complicated. Many different legal doctrines combine to determine who must pay for which injuries. Sometimes an attorney can be very helpful in adequately assessing whether someone else bears some or all of the legal responsibility for a victim’s injuries. An attorney may be able to help victims who are tired of bearing the expenses of their damages alone.