criminal negligence | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Criminal Law

Criminal negligence refers to severe carelessness showing disregard for the safety of others, leading to harm or injury.

At the heart of criminal negligence is the concept of duty of care. This refers to the responsibility that individuals have to avoid actions or situations that could reasonably be expected to cause harm to others. When we drive, for example, we have a duty of care to follow traffic laws and pay attention to the road to avoid causing accidents. A doctor has a duty of care to provide competent medical treatment to patients. If a person fails to exercise the level of care that a reasonable person would in a similar situation, they may be found criminally negligent.

It’s important to note that criminal negligence involves more than just carelessness or a simple mistake. It requires a degree of negligence that is so severe that it shows a disregard for the lives and safety of others. This means that not every act of negligence will lead to criminal charges. For instance, a small oversight by a doctor that doesn’t harm a patient wouldn’t typically constitute criminal negligence. But if the doctor’s mistake is so severe that it leads to a patient’s injury or death, that might be seen as criminally negligent.

Criminal Negligence in the Model Penal Code

The Model Penal Code (MPC), which is a framework that many U.S. states use to shape their own criminal laws, addresses criminal negligence. According to the MPC, a person acts negligently when they should be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a material element of an offense exists or will result from their conduct. In other words, if a reasonable person would have recognized the risk and acted differently, the individual might be found criminally negligent.

The Legal Process for Criminal Negligence

To be found guilty of a crime based on criminal negligence, a prosecutor must prove several elements. First, they must establish that the defendant owed a duty of care to the victim. Second, they must show that the defendant breached this duty through their actions or lack of action. Finally, the prosecutor must demonstrate that this breach caused harm to the victim.

Let’s consider an example: suppose a driver is texting while driving and hits a pedestrian, causing serious injuries. In this case, the driver has a duty of care to pay attention to the road and avoid causing harm to others. By texting while driving, the driver breaches this duty. The breach is directly responsible for the pedestrian’s injuries. Therefore, the driver may be found criminally negligent.

Penalties for Criminal Negligence

The penalties for criminal negligence can vary widely, depending on the severity of the harm caused and the specific laws of the jurisdiction where the crime occurred. They may include fines, imprisonment, or both. For instance, criminally negligent homicide, which is causing someone’s death through criminal negligence, is a serious offense that can result in a long prison sentence.


Understanding the concept of criminal negligence is essential for any student of criminal law, as it reminds us of our responsibility to act with care toward others in our daily lives. Whether we are parents, drivers, professionals, or simply members of a community, we all have a duty of care to act responsibly and avoid actions that could cause harm to others.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/15/2023

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