Personal Injury

What Is the Duty of Care in a Personal Injury Case?

Establishing the "duty of care" -- and showing how it was breached -- is the cornerstone of proof in most personal injury cases, so it's crucial to understand this legal concept.

People are injured in accidents every day, but only some of these mishaps will lead to a valid injury claim. So, what personal injury cases are bound to succeed, and which claimants will likely end up with nothing? One key factor in the analysis is whether the party who caused the injuries—the defendant, if a personal injury lawsuit has been filed—owed the injured person (the plaintiff) a "duty of care" in the eyes of the law.

Why does this matter? The concept of negligence almost always determines fault in a personal injury case, and the claimant must establish all elements of negligence: namely the duty of care, breach of that duty, causation, and damages in order to prevail. So, the failure to establish the existence of a duty of care will be fatal to a personal injury claim. Let's take a closer look.

What is the 'Duty of Care'?

As a general rule, each person has a legal duty to exercise reasonable care in order to avoid causing injury to others. This duty can be easily understood in the context of driving a car. We all rely on each other to obey the rules of the road (e.g., traffic lights, stop signs, one-way streets, speed limits, etc.) so that we do not cause car accidents. When someone disobeys a traffic law and causes an accident, we say that this person has breached the duty of care by failing to act reasonably under the circumstances—breaking a law is never reasonable conduct. (Learn more about the "reasonable person" in the context of a personal injury case.)

However, there are instances where the driver of the vehicle may not be found to have breached a duty of care, even when an accident results. For example, if the vehicle suffered a mechanical failure due to a manufacturing defect of which the driver was unaware, that driver might escape liability because he encountered a sudden emergency not of his own making. Similarly, a breach of duty will probably not be found where the driver strikes a pedestrian who unexpectedly runs out into the street, since we do not owe a duty to others to anticipate their unreasonable actions.

Duty of Care and the "Special Relationship"

In certain situations, the duty of care is heightened and the responsible party is held to a stricter standard, when it's not enough to simply ask whether the defendant's conduct was reasonable under the circumstances. One example is the duty of care imposed on "common carriers" such as bus drivers and airline pilots, who must exercise a heightened degree of care for their passengers' safety. Another example is the duty of care imposed on many professionals—such as doctors and lawyers. Not only must these professionals exercise reasonable care, they must also meet the standard of conduct applicable to persons of reasonable knowledge and skill in their profession. This standard of conduct is not generally understood by the public at large and must usually be established by the testimony of experts in the relevant field—when proving a medical malpractice case, for example.

Business and Other Organizations Also Have a Duty of Care

While the focus of liability in a personal injury case is usually on an individual wrongdoer, there are situations where the party who has breached the duty of care is a business. For example, a grocery store owes its customers a duty to keep aisles free and clear of spills and obstructions that pose an unreasonable risk of injury. When a customer slips and falls on grapes that have been lying on the produce department floor for an unreasonably long time, the grocery store will likely be held liable for the customer's injuries because the business breached the duty to keep the floor in a reasonably safe condition.

In this situation, it doesn't matter who is responsible for the grapes ending up on the floor; the breach of the duty of care on the part of the grocery store arises from the store's failure to discover and remove the grapes in a timely fashion, since it was foreseeable that a customer could end up slipping and falling on them. Learn more about foreseeability in a personal injury case.

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