The elements of a claim should be well understood before the first document is filed in a case, by either side. The plaintiff should understand what she’s suing for, and the defendant should understand what he’s responding to.
What are these elements?
Elements are the basic components needed to prove a cause of action.
It’s similar to the table of elements in chemistry. To make water, you need 2 hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom, because those are the elements of water.
Or think of the basic elements in nature. Everything in the material world is made from earth, water, wood, metal and fire.
Likewise, every claim has its elements.
A negligence claim has four elements: (1) a duty of care; (2) a breach of that duty; (3) an injury that was proximately caused by the breach; and (4) actual damages resulting from that injury.
A fraud claim has nine elements: (1) a representation of fact; (2) the falsity of that fact; (3) the materiality of the fact; (4) the fraudster’s knowledge of its falsity (or ignorance of its truth); (5) the fraudster’s intent that the injured party should act upon that fact; (6) the injured party’s ignorance of its falsity; (7) the injured party’s reliance on its truth; (8) the injured party’s right to rely on the representation; and (9) the injured party’s injury resulting from reliance on that fact.
An alienation of affection claim (my favorite North Carolina tort) has three elements: (1) a happy marriage with genuine love and affection between the spouses; (2) wrongful and malicious acts (like sex) designed to alienate that love and affection; and (3) the resulting destruction of that love and affection.
Be very careful to find a statute or appellate case that lays out the elements in your jurisdiction. Elements of a claim can change from state to state.
So why are elements so important?
You can’t begin to think about your case properly without understanding the elements.
Let’s say you’re the plaintiff. You’ve got a complaint to write, defend and take to trial. To get past the defendant’s motion to dismiss, you’ve got to include facts that support every element of the claim.
If you’re suing for negligence and you fail to state that the defendant had a duty of care, then your claim could be dismissed.
You also want to check the elements when you’re on the defendant’s side of the case. Your motion to dismiss the claim will be based on those missing elements.
But as a defendant, you may also lodge some affirmative defenses at that claim. If so, you need to understand the elements of your defenses.
A defense of laches, for instance, requires three elements: (1) a delay in filing the claim; (2) lack of good reason for the delay; and (3) prejudice to the defendant caused by the delay.
If you assert laches as an affirmative defense but fail to state that the plaintiff lacked a good reason for the delay, your defense could be struck, needlessly.
Discovery requests must also be tied to the elements of claims and defenses, or they risk objections for (ir)relevance that are sustained by the court.
And of course, if you make it to trial, the judge or jury will decide whether the plaintiff has presented enough evidence to prove each element of the claim, and whether the defendant has proven each element of an affirmative defense.
In some cases, even appeals can weigh the evidence in favor of various elements. The appeals process itself can have its own set of elements, like preservation of error, or harm from the ruling under review.
Elements are critical no matter what stage of the case you’re in. From complaint to appeal, they are the deciding factors of your progress and success.
Have you missed an element in your claim or defense? Share in the comments below.