Duty of Care & How Breach of Duty Can Lead to a Lawsuit

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What is the Duty of Care?

“Duty of care” is a common term in courtrooms across the country.

It’s a principle that each member of society is expected, and obligated, to uphold.

Individuals, groups, and companies are required to act with a reasonable standard of care to avoid harming others.

While determining reasonable care might seem subjective, it’s a well-established standard used for determining guilt in tort law.

State courts nationwide have established objective standards for duty of care.

Deciphering whether a defendant breached this standard is how courts determine if he or she should be held liable for the other party’s injuries and damages.

This determinant is applied in a breadth of cases including car accidents, workplace injuries, and many other lawsuits where an individual or group caused harm to another.

Read on to learn more.

Duty of Care Definition

So what exactly does duty of care mean?

Let’s look at the definition of Duty of Care:

  • “A requirement that a person act toward others and the public with the watchfulness, attention, caution and prudence that a reasonable person in the circumstances would use. If a person’s actions do not meet this standard of care, then the acts are considered negligent, and any damages resulting may be claimed in a lawsuit for negligence.”

Duty of care is a societal – and legal – obligation to act reasonably to avoid injuring or inflicting harm upon others.

It applies to both individuals and organizations, and those who fail to uphold this responsibility can be held liable by law.

Certain professions, such as doctors and lawyers, are held to a higher duty of care that obligates them to act in accordance with their professions’ expertise and standards of care.

Duty of Care in Civil Law

Duty of care plays a key role in personal injury cases.

All citizens are expected to exercise reasonable caution to avoid injuring others.

This expectation is his or her legal duty of care.

When courts determine that a defendant breached this duty, usually through negligence action or blatant disregard for the plaintiff’s safety, it’s likely he or she will be hold at least some level of liability for the plaintiff’s injuries or losses.

The defendant is then required to compensate the victim for any incurred damages.

What is Negligence?

Negligence means that a person acted in a way that put others in harm’s way.

In personal injury cases, this means that the defendant did not exhibit the level of care that a person of good judgment would exercise in the same situation.

Negligence can cover both the defendant’s actions and instances where he or she failed to act to prevent harm.

Who Sets Duty of Care Laws?

The Tenth Amendment of the Constitution gives individual states the right to develop their own standards for tort law.

Because of this, duty of care varies state by state.

However, most states use multi-factor analyses that include foreseeability tests and other factors to determine a breach of care.

Who Has a Duty of Care?

Every American is obligated to act with a reasonable degree of care to protect the safety of others.

This duty of care generally applies uniformly to all people in all situations.

However, the law imposes additional duties of care on certain people and professionals who are responsible for the well being of the public and groups of people.

Read on to learn more.


Manufacturers of common products have a duty to take reasonable care to ensure that their products do not harm or injure consumers.

This is a basic tenant of defective product and liability law.

Manufacturers are obligated to consider consumer safety when developing the design, distribution, and use of products.


Common law obligates employers to take the necessary steps to avoid the risks of reasonably foreseeable injuries and harm to their employees.

These employer duty of care obligations help to ensure workplaces are safe and healthy.

Employers that breach this duty can be held liable forworkplace injury lawsuits.

Property Owners

State premise liability laws obligate property owners to provide a reasonably safe premise for individuals who are on their property.

They can be held liable for accidents and injuries that occur on their property including their home, land, vehicles, and other spaces.

However, property owners can minimize their liability and prevent premise liability lawsuits by making reasonable efforts to protect visitors from damage and by limiting foreseeable harms.


Duty of care has several applications regarding businesses and corporations.

Directors and officers of companies are expected to make decisions in good faith to consider the well-being of their employees and the public good.

Failure to meet this duty is a common cause for liability in cases such as bad drug lawsuitstoxic torts, and other cases where a company’s actions harm a person or group.

Medical Providers

Medical providers are obligated to act with a higher standard of care than many other professions.

The American Medical Association’s modern Hippocratic Oath lays out the guiding principle, “First, do no harm.”

Medical providers who do not treat patients with professional, adequate care can be held liable for medical malpractice lawsuits.

Government Institutions

The constitution places a government duty of care for its institutions to “prevent foreseeable risks,” noting that the only risks considered foreseeable are “those that obstruct the performance of civic functions.”

Government institutions can breach this duty of care in instances where they violate the U.S. Constitution, state constitutions, or the Bill of Rights.

Plaintiffs can assert constitutional and tort claims against public officials and government institutions (often at the state or federal supreme courts) for violations such as illegal search and seizure, cruel and unusual punishment, and unequal process.

Examples of Duty of Care

Duty of care applies to every citizen.

Each individual is obligated to act with reasonable care to prevent causing harm to others.

This expectation also applies to organizations and businesses.

Duty of care responsibilities and interpretations can change based on one’s standing or profession.

Examples of duty of care include:

  • Drivers are expected to operate their vehicles in a manner that avoids injuring other drivers, passengers, and pedestrians on the road.
  • Accountants are obligated to properly file customers’ tax returns.
  • Businesses are required to follow regulations to prevent unnecessary harm to human health and the environment.
  • Doctors must meet expected standards of care for treatment and avoid causing harm, injury, or death to patients
  • Employers have the responsibility to protect their employees from unnecessary risks of harm while working or traveling on the company’s behalf.

The Four Elements of Breach of Duty of Care

Every individual, group, organization, and business owes a duty to act in a reasonable way to prevent harming others.

This duty of care is a major tenant of tort law, and those who breach this duty can be held liable in civil litigation.

For a plaintiff (the victim) to prove strict liability and win a duty of care breach lawsuit, he or she must be able to prove four elements:

  1. the existence of a duty of care
  2. breach of that duty
  3. damages
  4. causation

Existence of a Duty of Care

A plaintiff must first prove that a duty of care exists for the plaintiff.

This can depend on the situation and the defendant’s position.

For example, a bus driver is expected to yield to pedestrians at marked walkways.

This is his duty of care that is established by law.

Breach of that Duty

The plaintiff must then prove that the defendant breached his or her duty of care.

In the bus driver example, this would mean that he failed to yield to the pedestrian.


In a breach of duty of care lawsuit, the defendant’s breach caused harm to the plaintiff.

This can include both economic and non-economic damages.

For example, if the bus driver struck a pedestrian while failing to yield, it’s likely he will be held liable for the pedestrian’s injuries, medical bills, and other incurred damages.


For a plaintiff to win the case, he or she must be able to prove that the damages were caused by the defendant’s breach of duty of care.

This helps to ensure that individuals are not sued for costs and damages that they are not liable for.

In the bus driver pedestrian accident case, there would have to be proof that the accident caused the pedestrian’s injuries.

Examples of Breach of Duty of Care

Breaches in duty of care are common grounds for a wide variety of lawsuits.

This ranges from cases against individuals to those taking on major corporations.

Here are a few breach of duty of care examples:

  • A driver blows through a red light and strikes another vehicle. The driver could be liable in an auto accident lawsuit for breaching the duty to obey traffic signals.
  • A business owner mops his floors but does not put up a wet floor sign. A customer enters, slips and falls, and breaks his arm. The owner breached the duty to warn customers and could be held liable for a premise liability lawsuit.
  • A pharmacist fills a prescription that causes a bad interaction with a patient’s other medications. The pharmacist holds a duty to cross-reference the patient’s medical history and prescription records to ensure this doesn’t happen. The pharmacist could then be liable for a pharmacy malpractice lawsuit.
  • A local manufacturing plant does not properly dispose of its waste. This goes on to contaminate local water sources. The company could then face toxic tort and other environmental lawsuits for violating its duty to follow EPA hazardous waste guidelines.
  • Numerous consumers report that a specific brand of infant incline sleepers has a dangerous design that puts babies at risk of suffocation. The designers and manufacturers neglected their duty to create a product that is safe for its intended use. This could lead to defective product lawsuits and, in the instance of suffocation, wrongful death claims.

When a person, group, or business fails to uphold their duty of care, they could be held liable to face any number of personal injury lawsuits.

These lawsuits are used to help victims earn compensation for their damages and get back to their lives.

Read on to learn how a breach of duty of care leads to a personal injury lawsuit.

How Breach Leads to a Personal Injury Lawsuit

Breaches of duty of care can often lead to personal injury lawsuits.

In these cases, plaintiffs (the victims) seek compensation for their damages by proving that defendants (the accused parties) are liable for their injuries.

The goal is for this compensation to help the plaintiffs return the same physical, financial, and mental position they were in prior to the incident.

To prove liability, a plaintiff must show that a defendant committed negligence or exhibited a blatant disregard for the plaintiff’s safety.

This exhibits a breach of duty to exercise reasonable caution to keep other people safe.

Once breached duty is established, the plaintiff is expected to prove that the defendant’s actions, or failure to act as reasonably expected, caused an injury to the plaintiff.

If the plaintiff can prove the breached duty of care and show that it caused his or her damages, it is likely that the defendant will be held liable.

740 ILCS 130/  Premises Liability Act., www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/ilcs3.asp?ActID=2048&ChapterID=57.

Crowell, Jason. Duties of Care and the Constitution: A Negligence Model of Individual Rights, Yale Law School, digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1461&context=ylpr#:~:text=The%20duty%20of%20care%20the,the%20performance%20of%20civic%20functions.

Duty of Care.Legal Information Institute, Legal Information Institute, www.law.cornell.edu/wex/duty_of_care#:~:text=Definition,person%20in%20their%20position%20would.

Fact Sheet: Federal Preemption of Tort Law.Centerjd.org, 9 Feb. 2015, centerjd.org/content/fact-sheet-federal-preemption-tort-law#:~:text=%5B6%5DThe%2010th%20Amendment%20states,Amend.

Hazardous Waste.EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 8 Dec. 2020, www.epa.gov/hw.

Legal Dictionary – Law.com.Law.com Legal Dictionary, dictionary.law.com/Default.aspx?selected=599.

Tort Liability for Negligence in Missouri .e Law Journals at University of Missouri School of Law Scholarship Repository, scholarship.law.missouri.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1030&context=ls.

Tort.Legal Information Institute, Legal Information Institute, www.law.cornell.edu/wex/tort.

Tyson, Peter. “The Hippocratic Oath Today.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 27 Mar. 2001, www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/hippocratic-oath-today/.


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