What is the "Duty of Care" in Personal Injury Law?

Proving fault in most personal injury cases means proving that someone breached the "duty of care." Here's what that means.

By , J.D. · DePaul University College of Law

If you're making a personal injury claim, now is probably a good time to learn about "duty of care" and "negligence," which play a big part in determining who is at fault after most kinds of accidents.

What is a "Duty of Care"?

Everyone has a legal duty to act reasonably and avoid injuring other people. When people fail to meet this legal duty, they may be "liable" (responsible) for the harm they cause. This is a core principle of personal injury law.

For example, think about a car accident. If Driver A's car hits Driver B's car after Driver A ran a red light, Driver B can sue Driver A (in most states) for accident-related injuries and vehicle damage. Even though Driver A didn't intend to hit Driver B, Driver A will likely have to pay for Driver B's losses (like car repairs and medical bills) because Driver A had a duty to use reasonable care to avoid harming anyone else on the road. In other words, Driver A, like all drivers, owes a duty of care to everyone else on the road. A reasonable driver wouldn't have driven through a red light because that act is careless and likely to injure others. So, we can say that Driver A breached a duty of care.

The duty to act reasonably to avoid harming others is the duty of care that applies in most situations. But, in some situations, the law imposes a higher duty of care. For example, common carriers (an old legal term for people or businesses that provide public transportation) owe a higher degree of care than the average person owes. So, for example, a bus company might be liable for a passenger's injuries when the bus driver gets in an accident while talking to a passenger. Average drivers typically don't violate their duty of care to passengers by talking while driving. But, because common carriers owe a higher degree of care, they can be liable for even a slight violation or breach of duty.

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 provide the level and type of care that a reasonably competent and skilled health care provider, with a similar background and in the same medical community, would have provided under the circumstances. A violation of this special medical standard of care can lead to a medical malpractice case.

The duty of care also applies to businesses. So, imagine that 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 to avoid causing foreseeable (predictable) injuries to customers. As a result, the customer will likely be able to sue the business for a slip and fall injury.

"Breach" of the Duty of Care

A person can hold another person or business liable for violating a duty of care by filing a civil lawsuit alleging negligence. In order to win, the injured person (the "plaintiff") typically must show four things:

  • the existence of a duty of care
  • breach of that duty
  • damages, and
  • causation.

So, "negligence" is a legal term that basically means a breach of a "duty of care" (see above).

Once a plaintiff has proven that the person being sued (the "defendant") owed the plaintiff a duty of care, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant failed to act in line with 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 the Duty of Care Leads to a Personal Injury Case

Let's take a look at an example. Pete lives in a big city. He rides the bus to work every day. One day, the bus driver runs a red light while looking at his phone. Pete breaks his arm when the bus hits a large truck. Pete files a personal injury lawsuit against the bus company.

First, Pete has to show that the bus driver owed him a duty of care. This will be easy for Pete to prove. All drivers have a duty to use reasonable care to avoid harming anyone else on the road. And because a bus is a common carrier, the bus driver had a duty to act with an even higher level of care than the average driver to keep passengers safe.

Second, Pete has to prove that Dave breached the duty of care. The bus driver ran a red light while looking at his phone in violation of the vehicle code. Both violations (running a red light and distracted driving) qualify as a breach of the driver's duty to use reasonable care to keep passengers safe.

Third, Pete has to prove that he was harmed. He broke his arm. He can get compensation for his injury-related losses (damages).

Fourth, Pete has to prove that the breach caused his harm. Pete wouldn't have broken his arm if the bus driver was paying attention to the road. Nothing else intervening acts contributed to the injury (for example, another passenger didn't push Pete down and cause his broken arm). So, the driver's breach of duty caused Pete's injury.

So, Pete can show the bus driver was at fault for his injury. Pete has a valid case against the bus company (employers are typically liable when an employee's careless actions harm someone else under a concept called "vicarious liability"). Learn more about proving negligence in a personal injury case.

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