The concept of negligence is the core of American tort law, and involves three basic elements: duty, breach, and proximate causation.

The first element in any case involving a claim of negligence is duty. A plaintiff must prove that the defendant in the case owed them a duty of care based on some sort of relationship or connection between the parties. This relationship could be a formal one, such as lawyer/client, doctor/patient, or producer/consumer, but a formal relationship is not necessary. For instance, it is understood in our system of law that anyone who operates an automobile has a duty to others around them to do so in a reasonably safe manner, regardless of whether they have any actual “relationship”.

Once a duty of care is established between the parties, a plaintiff must show that the defendant breached that duty and an injury occurred. Such a breach can happen in one of two ways. First, if an individual knowingly puts another person at risk of injury and fails to take action to prevent it, then a breach has taken place. Alternatively, if an individual fails to realize that they are putting that person at risk, but a "reasonable and prudent" person would have realized this, it would also be a breach of care. In addition, an actual injury must result. If an individual with a duty acts in an unreasonably dangerous way but does not cause any damage or injury, a lawsuit against them will not succeed.

After breach, a plaintiff must be able to prove that the defendant’s act or failure to act caused the injury that occurred. “Causation” in a legal context can be broken down into two subgroups: cause in fact, and proximate cause. A cause in fact scenario is one where the injury or damage would not have occurred "but for" the defendant’s act or failure to act. In contrast, a proximate cause case is one where several factors may have contributed to the injury, but the injury was (or should have been) foreseeable by the defendant at the time they acted.

In order to win a case for negligence, a plaintiff must establish:

1. A duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff.

2. A breach of that duty.

3. An injury caused by that breach.