"Duty of Care" in Personal Injury Law

Almost every personal injury case is based on some breach of duty. Learn about this important legal concept.

Anyone who has been involved in a personal injury lawsuit has come across the terms "duty of care" and "negligence." These two terms are the centerpiece of almost all lawsuits resulting from personal injuries.

This article will explain the legal concepts underlying these terms.

What is a Duty of Care?

At all times, all people in the United States have a legal duty to act reasonably so as to avoid injuring other people. When people fail to meet this legal duty, they may be liable for any resulting injuries to others.

As an example, consider a car accident. If Driver A's car strikes Driver B's car after Driver A's car ran a red light, Driver B can sue Driver A (in most states) for resulting injuries. This is true even though Driver A did not intend to injure Driver B. Driver A will likely be liable for injuries to Driver B because Driver A owed a duty of care to act as a reasonable driver. A reasonable driver would not have driven through a red light because that act is dangerous. Thus, we can say that Driver A breached a duty of care. Breaches of a driver's duty are so common, that every state requires drivers to carry liability insurance (or proof of financial responsibility) to cover the almost inevitable accident.

The duty to act reasonably is the normal duty of care that applies in most situations. However, in some situations, the law imposes other duties of care. For example, common carriers (including bus drivers, train drivers, and airplane pilots) owe a particularly high duty of care to passengers. So, a bus company (a common carrier) might be liable for a passenger's injuries when the bus company was only slightly at fault for the injuries.

The law also imposes a higher duty of care on some professionals, including doctors and lawyers. A doctor must not only act as a reasonable person would under the circumstances but must also exhibit the knowledge and professionalism that a reasonable doctor would exhibit under the circumstances. For this reason, even a subtle miscalculation or mistake can lead to a doctor being sued.

Children also have their own duty of care. A child cannot usually be expected to act as a reasonable adult. So the law requires children to act as a reasonable child of similar age, experience, and education would under the circumstances.

Duty of care also applies to businesses. A business must act as a reasonable business would under similar circumstances. So, imagine a coffee shop fails to place a rug or mat near a doorway on a rainy day. Water accumulates, and a customer slips and falls due to the slippery floor. The coffee shop failed to fulfill its duty to act as a reasonable business so as to avoid causing injuries to customers. As a result, the customer will likely be able to sue the business.

Breach of Duty

A person can sue another person for violating a duty of care by filing a lawsuit for negligence. In order to win a negligence lawsuit, a plaintiff must prove four elements:

  • duty of care
  • breach of the duty
  • damages, and
  • causation.

Thus, "negligence" is a legal term that basically means a breach of a duty. The "duty of care" which was discussed above, is one of the four elements that a person must prove in order to win a lawsuit for negligence.

The other three elements are relatively easy to understand. Once a plaintiff has proven that a defendant had a duty of care, in order to win the lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant failed to achieve that duty of care (or "breached" the duty), that the plaintiff suffered harm (damages), and that the damages were actually caused by the defendant's breach (causation).

How a Breach of Duty Leads To A Personal Injury Case

Consider an example. Pete rides a bus to work every day. One day, Dave, the driver of the bus, fails to pay attention while driving, runs a red light, and strikes a large vehicle. Pete suffers a broken arm.

Pete might decide to sue the bus company for his injuries. Pete would file a negligence lawsuit.

First, Pete would have to prove Dave's duty of care. Since Dave was driving a bus, he was a common carrier. We know that common carriers have a duty to act with a particularly high level of care to keep passengers safe.

Second, Pete would have to prove that Dave breached the duty of care. Dave ran a red light and struck a truck because he was not paying attention. That would be a breach of the duty to act reasonably to keep passengers safe.

Third, Pete would have to prove that he was harmed. He suffered a broken arm, which certainly counts as damages.

Fourth, Pete would have to prove that the breach caused the harm. Pete would not have been injured if Dave had been paying attention. No intervening acts contributed to the injury. So, we can say that the breach caused the harm.

So, Pete has established Dave's (and the bus company's) fault for the harm suffered, and Pete would have a valid personal injury lawsuit.

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