What Is Culpable Negligence?


In South Carolina, negligence is the failure to use necessary care under the circumstances. Negligence is the most common cause of action for personal injury cases and comes into play when a distracted driver hits someone or a lazy property owner neglects to fix a hazard.


Not all negligence is the same, however. South Carolina also recognizes “gross negligence,” which might be called “culpable negligence” in other states (like Florida). Gross negligence is even more serious than ordinary negligence. It is not only a crime, but it can also result in more compensation for accident victims.


How South Carolina Defines Gross Culpable Negligence

South Carolina courts recognize that gross negligence is one of degree. It is more serious than “ordinary negligence,” which is the failure to use reasonable care in the actions you take based on the circumstances. For example, a store owner who carelessly mops up a spill so that some of the liquid remains is negligent. But if the owner took hours to even go find a mop after discovering the spill, then he has been grossly negligent.


In some contexts, the South Carolina Supreme Court has defined gross negligence as the failure to use even “slight care.” They have also said that gross negligence is the conscious and intentional failure to do something that you should do or doing something intentionally which you shouldn’t.


Other Examples of Gross Negligence

Here are other situations where we can compare ordinary and gross negligence:

Negligent security. A hotel is liable if a guest is attacked by someone on the premises.

  • Ordinary negligence: The front desk clerk is too busy texting friends to notice a stranger loitering about the property.

  • Gross negligence: the clerk was told by several people that a strange person was hanging around, they are grossly negligent if they don’t call the cops or at least investigate.

Truck accidents. Trucking companies must perform random drug tests of their drivers and suspend someone who fails.

  • Ordinary negligence: a company owner neglects to look at the test results for a day or two because he is so busy.

  • Gross negligence: the owner doesn’t look at the test results for weeks, or possibly ever.

Motorcycle accidents. Motorists must use reasonable care on the road so they don’t crash into motorcyclists.

  • Ordinary negligence: A negligent driver might change lanes without checking her blind spot and crash into a motorcycle.

  • Gross negligence: A grossly negligent driver might pass much too closely and end up clipping a biker.

Car accidents. Drivers must use reasonable care in how they drive and maintain their vehicles.

  • Ordinary negligence: going 5 miles per hour over the speed limit due to inattention.

  • Gross negligence: going 40 miles per hour over the speed limit because you are in a hurry.

Gross Negligence Is a Crime

In certain situations, gross negligence can qualify as a crime. For example, involuntary manslaughter is defined in Section 16-3-60 of the South Carolina Code as the killing of someone with “criminal negligence.” The statute further defines criminal negligence as the “reckless disregard” for the safety of others.


For example, a motorist might be driving 90 miles an hour in a residential neighborhood. They are showing no regard for the safety of their passengers or for anyone who might step into the road. Although they didn’t intentionally try to hit someone, their conduct was clearly reckless. Consequently, they are guilty of involuntary manslaughter.


Criminal negligence can also be the mental state of the criminal for other crimes in South Carolina. But for our purposes, it makes a big difference in personal injury cases where a victim sues for compensation.


Gross Negligence May Support a Request for Punitive Damages

Most of the compensation we receive for our clients is compensatory in nature. For example, someone who suffers a punctured lung in a car accident will need surgery and other medical care. This care costs money, so someone must pay. The person who caused the accident should bear the financial costs.

This same client probably loses income because she needs to miss work. Her injury also causes pain and suffering, which deserve some sort of compensation. In this example, we seek compensatory damages to put our clients back in the position they occupied before the accident.


With punitive damages, however, the goal is different. We are seeking to punish the defendant for their dangerous conduct. Under South Carolina section 15-32-530(D), a client can seek punitive damage if a defendant’s conduct was willful, wanton, or reckless. This is the type of conduct so egregious that defendants might suffer punishment.


Gross negligence can support punitive damages when it is so extreme it slides over into willful or reckless conduct. A motorist driving far too fast in a residential area is a classic example.


South Carolina Caps Punitive Damages

If we seek punitive damages for our clients, we must specifically request them. This is one reason to work with an experienced attorney—they know how to make the request the correct way.


In most cases, punitive damages are capped by state law. You cannot receive more than three times your compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is the greater of the two. So if you receive $400,000 in compensatory damages, the maximum you can receive for punitive damages is $1.2 million. By contrast, if you receive $100,000 in compensatory damages, the maximum you can receive in punitive damages is $500,000.


These caps are raised in certain situations. For example, if the defendant committed a felony, then the cap is four times compensatory damages, or $2 million (whichever is greater). And if the defendant intentionally injured you or was drunk at the time of the accident, there is no cap.


We Seek Justice for Victims of Gross Negligence

These cases require an experienced attorney who pursues all avenues of compensation, including punitive damages. If you were hurt in an accident, contact Surasky Law today. You can schedule a free, no-obligation consultation with our lawyer to review what happened. Based on what we hear, we can discuss what types of compensation you might receive. Call us today to start.


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