Knowing that you were harmed because another party failed to do their duty to protect you can be a terrible feeling. From a legal perspective, though, you may wonder what makes a situation bad enough that it justifies compensation. Let's review the topic from the perspective of a negligence attorney.
Establishing a Duty of Care
At the core of all negligence laws is the idea that someone has a duty of care. This is not, however, a given in all situations. Instead, a duty of care is formed when someone knowingly enters into circumstances where they should protect others. For example, a building supervisor in an apartment complex has a duty of care because they agreed to look after the location and, by extension, its tenants and visitors.
Generally speaking, an invitation is necessary for negligence to occur. This is the idea that you were invited to a place in some way, such as when a guest comes to your house. The invitee concept is essentially an exception that prevents people engaged in wrongdoing, such as burglars, from suing homeowners.
It should be noted that extreme conduct, such as the classic case of an Iowa couple rigging up a shotgun to protect valuables in a house they owned, can end up being an exception to the invitee rule. Some states, notably California, are moving away from the invitee requirement completely, meaning that even a burglar could sue you for negligence.
A defendant might still be off the hook for negligence if they're not the proximate cause of the harm the victim experienced. The classic version of this is what's known as force majeure, or so-called Acts of God. Essentially, the idea is that a person can't be held liable for things that were beyond their power. For example, a landlord probably wouldn't be responsible for injuries suffered by tenants searching through the wreckage of a house in the hours after a tornado because the landlord has no control over the weather.
Even if there was a duty of care and some person or organization can be identified as the proximate cause of something, it might still not be compensable negligence. A person could, in theory, do the most dangerous thing imaginable, but potential harm might pass by everyone and cause no trouble. Typically, the court's attitude toward these sorts of events is "no harm, no foul," unless an emotional trauma can be proven.