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.

If you're making a personal injury claim, now is probably a good time to familiarize yourself with terms like "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"?

At any given time, everyone has 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 harm experienced by others. This is a core principle of personal injury law.

As an example, consider a car accident. If Driver A's car strikes Driver B's car after Driver A ran a red light, Driver B can sue Driver A (in most states) for resulting injuries and vehicle damage. 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 had a duty to act as a reasonable driver, and to avoid acting in a way that might cause injury to others on the road. To put this another way, Driver A (like all drivers on the roads and highways) owes a duty of care to everyone else on the road. A reasonable driver would not 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 with respect to the safet of others is the 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 causing an accident.

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 act with the skill and professionalism that a similarly-trained doctor would exhibit under the circumstances. Breach 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 so as to avoid causing foreseeable injuries to customers. As a result, the customer will likely be able to sue the business for slip and fall injuries.

"Breach" of the Duty of Care

One person can hold another liable for violating a duty of care by filing a civil lawsuit alleging negligence. In order to win, the plaintiff must usually prove four elements:

  • 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 legal 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 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

Consider an example. Pete rides a bus to work every day. One day, Dave, the driver of the bus, while looking at his phone (in violation of company policy) runs a red light, and strikes a large vehicle. Pete suffers a broken arm.

Pete might decide to file a personal injury lawsuit against the bus company.

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 was using his phone while driving, ran a red light, and struck a truck because he wasn't paying attention. That would easily qualify as 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 case against the bus company. Learn more about proving negligence in a personal injury case.

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