The legal theory underlying many California car accident-related personal injury lawsuits is based on the behavior of the person alleged to have caused the harm. The question is whether he was acting unreasonably under the circumstances that existed at the time of the accident. Two legal terms often used to refer to such unreasonable behavior are “negligence” and “recklessness.”

Although they are similar in some ways, negligence and recklessness are distinct wrongful behaviors. Establishing that a defendant exhibited one or the other in the events leading up to a car accident can make an important difference when it comes to winning a money damages compensation award.


Negligence is a common foundation of liability in car accident personal injury lawsuits. The plaintiff must show that the defendant (1) owed him a duty of care, (2) breached that duty by acting in a way that the defendant either knew or should have known would cause harm to the plaintiff, and (3) that harm to the plaintiff in fact occurred. Negligent behaviors are ones that are careless, inattentive, or incompetent.


Recklessness requires a state of mind on the part of the defendant that is more difficult to excuse than “should have known better” negligence. The defendant must in fact know of an unreasonable risk of harm to others, and then cause harm by acting anyway. This is referred to as acting in knowing disregard of a substantial risk.

So for example, a person driving 10 miles an hour faster than the speed limit may be negligent. But drag racing along a city street would be reckless. Fumbling for a dropped cigarette lighter while behind the wheel may be negligent. Drinking and driving would more likely be considered to be reckless. Not using a turn signal can constitute negligence; knowingly running a stop sign is reckless.

In a car accident personal injury lawsuit, the issue of whether the defendant acted negligently or recklessly may not impact the actual, economic damages that the plaintiff claims. But with regard to punitive damages, the plaintiff’s case can be made be stronger by showing that the defendant acted recklessly and not just negligently.