California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI)

425. “Gross Negligence” Explained

Gross negligence is the lack of any care or an extreme departure from what a reasonably careful person would do in the same situation to prevent harm to oneself or to others.

A person can be grossly negligent by acting or by failing to act.

New April 2008

Directions for Use

Give this instruction if a particular statute that is at issue in the case creates a distinction based on a standard of gross negligence. (See, e.g., Gov. Code, § 831.7(c)(5) [immunity for public entity or employee to liability to participant in or spectator to hazardous recreational activity does not apply if act of gross negligence is proximate cause of injury].) Courts generally resort to this definition if gross negligence is at issue under a statute. (See, e.g., Wood v. County of San Joaquin (2003) 111 Cal.App.4th 960, 971 [4 Cal.Rptr.3d 340].)

Give this instruction with CACI No 400, Negligence—Essential Factual Elements, but modify that instruction to refer to gross negligence.

This instruction may also be given if case law has created a distinction between gross and ordinary negligence. For example, under the doctrine of express assumption of risk, a signed waiver of liability may release liability for ordinary negligence only, not for gross negligence. (See City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 777 [62 Cal.Rptr.3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095]; see also CACI No. 451, Affırmative Defense—Contractual Assumption of Risk.)

Sources and Authority

  • “ ‘Gross negligence’ long has been defined in California and other jurisdictions as either a ‘ “ ‘want of even scant care’ ” ’ or ‘ “ ‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.’”’” (City of Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 754, internal citations omitted.)
  • “By contrast, ‘wanton’ or ‘reckless’ misconduct (or ‘ “willful and wanton negligence” ’) describes conduct by a person who may have no intent to cause harm, but who intentionally performs an act so unreasonable and dangerous that he or she knows or should know it is highly probable that harm will result.” (City of Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 754, fn. 4, internal citations omitted.)
  • “California does not recognize a distinct cause of action for ‘gross negligence’ independent of a statutory basis.” (Eriksson v. Nunnink (2011) 191 Cal.App.4th 826, 856 [120 Cal.Rptr.3d 90].)
  • “Gross negligence is pleaded by alleging the traditional elements of negligence: duty, breach, causation, and damages. However, to set forth a claim for ‘gross negligence’ the plaintiff must allege extreme conduct on the part of the defendant.” (Rosencrans v. Dover Images, Ltd. (2011) 192 Cal.App.4th 1072, 1082 [122 Cal.Rptr.3d 22], internal citation omitted.)
  • “The theory that there are degrees of negligence has been generally criticized by legal writers, but a distinction has been made in this state between ordinary and gross negligence. Gross negligence has been said to mean the want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.” (Van Meter v. Bent Constr. Co. (1956) 46 Cal.2d 588, 594 [297 P.2d 644], internal citation omitted.)
  • “Numerous California cases have discussed the doctrine of gross negligence. Invariably these cases have turned upon an interpretation of a statute which has used the words ‘gross negligence’ in the text.” (Cont’l Ins. Co. v. Am. Prot. Indus. (1987) 197 Cal.App.3d 322, 329 [242 Cal.Rptr. 784].)
  • “[P]ublic policy generally precludes enforcement of an agreement that would remove an obligation to adhere to even a minimal standard of care. Applying that general rule here, we hold that an agreement purporting to release liability for future gross negligence committed against a developmentally disabled child who participates in a recreational camp designed for the needs of such children violates public policy and is unenforceable.” (City of Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 777, original italics.)
  • “ ‘Prosser on Torts (1941) page 260, also cited by the Van Meter court for its definition of gross negligence, reads as follows: “Gross Negligence. This is very great negligence, or the want of even scant care. It has been described as a failure to exercise even that care which a careless person would use. Many courts, dissatisfied with a term so devoid of all real content, have interpreted it as requiring wilful misconduct, or recklessness, or such utter lack of all care as will be evidence of either—sometimes on the ground that this must have been the purpose of the legislature. But most courts have considered that ‘gross negligence’ falls short of a reckless disregard of consequences, and differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, and not in kind. So far as it has any accepted meaning, it is merely an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of care.”’” (Decker v. City of Imperial Beach (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 349, 358 [257 Cal.Rptr. 356], original italics, internal citations omitted.)
  • “California courts require a showing of ‘the want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct’ in order to establish gross negligence. Generally it is a triable issue of fact whether there has been such a lack of care as to constitute gross negligence but not always.” (Decker, supra, 209 Cal.App.3d at p. 358, internal citations omitted.)
  • “The Legislature has enacted numerous statutes . . . which provide immunity to persons providing emergency assistance except when there is gross negligence. (See Bus. & Prof. Code, § 2727.5 [immunity for licensed nurse who in good faith renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency occurring outside the place and course of nurse’s employment unless the nurse is grossly negligent]; Bus. & Prof. Code, § 2395.5 [immunity for a licensed physician who serves on-call in a hospital emergency room who in good faith renders emergency obstetrical services unless the physician was grossly negligent, reckless, or committed willful misconduct]; Bus. & Prof. Code, § 2398 [immunity for licensed physician who in good faith and without compensation renders voluntary emergency medical assistance to a participant in a community college or high school athletic event for an injury suffered in the course of that event unless the physician was grossly negligent]; Bus. & Prof. Code, § 3706 [immunity for certified respiratory therapist who in good faith renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency occurring outside the place and course of employment unless the respiratory therapist was grossly negligent]; Bus. & Prof. Code, § 4840.6 [immunity for a registered animal health technician who in good faith renders emergency animal health care at the scene of an emergency unless the animal health technician was grossly negligent]; Civ. Code, § 1714.2 [immunity to a person who has completed a basic cardiopulmonary resuscitation course for cardiopulmonary resuscitation and emergency cardiac care who in good faith renders emergency cardiopulmonary resuscitation at the scene of an emergency unless the individual was grossly negligent]; Health & Saf. Code, § 1799.105 [immunity for poison control center personnel who in good faith provide emergency information and advice unless they are grossly negligent]; Health & Saf. Code, § 1799.106 [immunity for a firefighter, police officer or other law enforcement officer who in good faith renders emergency medical services at the scene of an emergency unless the officer was grossly negligent]; Health & Saf. Code, § 1799.107 [immunity for public entity and emergency rescue personnel acting in good faith within the scope of their employment unless they were grossly negligent].)” (Decker, supra, 209 Cal.App.3d at pp. 356—357.)
  • “The jury here was instructed: ‘It is the duty of one who undertakes to perform the services of a police officer or paramedic to have the knowledge and skills ordinarily possessed and to exercise the care and skill ordinarily used in like cases by police officers or paramedics in the same or similar locality and under similar circumstances. A failure to perform such duty is negligence. [para.] The standard to be applied in this case is gross negligence. The term gross negligence means the failure to provide even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.’ ” (Wright v. City of L.A. (1990) 219 Cal.App.3d 318, 343 [268 Cal.Rptr. 309] [construing “gross negligence” under Health & Saf. Code, § 1799.106, which provides that a police officer or paramedic who renders emergency medical services at the scene of an emergency shall only be liable in civil damages for acts or omissions performed in a grossly negligent manner or not performed in good faith].)

Secondary Sources

5 Witkin, Summary of California Law (10th ed. 2005) Torts, § 278

Advising and Defending Corporate Directors and Officers (Cont.Ed.Bar) § 3.13

1 Levy et al., California Torts, Ch. 1, General Principles of Liability, § 1.01 (Matthew Bender)

33 California Forms of Pleading and Practice, Ch. 380, Negligence, §§ 380.10, 380.171 (Matthew Bender)