Duty of Care

A duty of care is the legal responsibility of a person or organization to avoid any behaviors or omissions that could reasonably be foreseen to cause harm to others. For example, a duty of care is owed by an accountant in correctly preparing a customer’s tax returns, to minimize the chance of an IRS audit. Similarly, manufacturers owe a duty of care to consumers in making sure that their products are safe for public use. To explore this concept, consider the following duty of care definition.

Definition of Duty of Care

Noun

  1. The responsibility of a person or organization to take all reasonable measures necessary to prevent activities that could result in harm to other individuals and/or their property.

Duty of Care Law

Because each of the states is free to develop its own duty of care laws, there are several different tests to determine whether someone has a duty of care under U.S. tort law. Under certain states’ duty of care laws, such as Florida and Massachusetts, the only test is whether the harm that the defendant’s actions caused could have been predicted by another reasonable person in the same circumstance. California’s duty of care law provides of one of the more complex tests in the nation, which carefully balances certain factors to determine whether a duty of care existed in a negligence action.

Some of these factors include:

  • The foreseeability of harm to the injured party
  • The degree to which the injured party suffered
  • The closeness of the connection between the defendant’s behavior and the plaintiff’s injury or other damages
  • The availability, cost, and commonness of insurance for the risks that were involved

When Does a Duty of Care Exist

A duty of care is the responsibility that a person or business has when doing business with, or otherwise interacting with, other people and businesses. Under tort law, duty of care is defined as the responsibility of a person or business to act as a reasonable person would act in a similar situation. A person who violates his duty of care by acting in a negligent or reckless matter is then liable for any harm that another person suffers as a result of his behavior. Examples of duty of care relationships include:

Manufacturers

Those who manufacture products owe a duty of care to those who buy them. This means that the products must be reasonably safe for others to use. Products should also carry warnings about any potential dangers that can result from using the product.

For instance, while a chain saw is not exactly “safe” to use, it should be reasonably safe enough that it is not impossible to use. It should also have an obvious warning label informing the customer of how he can become injured and the steps he can take to prevent this.

Property Owners

Those who own businesses and homes both have a duty of care to anyone who comes onto their property, to ensure there are no reasonably foreseen dangers. For instance, a clothing store has a duty of care to ensure a tear in the carpet does not remain to trip customers, who might then be injured.

Most states have different rules insofar as what kinds of protections property owners must offer to their visitors. Typically, and understandably, customers receive the highest level of care, while trespassers receive little to none.

Businesses

Managers and other top-level representatives of businesses are expected to make reasonable decisions that are in the best interests of their business. This duty of care is one that they owe to their own businesses, and it is referred to as the “business judgment rule.”

There are also specialized tort situations that require a specialized duty of care. For example, duty of care in a medical malpractice case requires that a doctor act in a way that is comparable to another reasonable doctor in his field. This is different from comparing his actions to a reasonable everyman in a similar situation. The same goes for legal malpractice cases. Here, an attorney’s duty of care is to act as another reasonable attorney would in a similar situation.

Some situations, however, are so dangerous that no matter how much care a person takes in his actions, it is impossible to make the situation “reasonably safe” in the eyes of the law. The person is therefore held responsible for injuries and/or damages no matter what. These situations are referred to as “strict liability” cases. Examples of this include the manufacturing of explosives, or the possession of dangerous animals.

Medical Duty of Care

Medical duty of care refers to a doctor’s duty of care to his patient. According to the law, there must be a “special” relationship between the doctor and his patient for the doctor to be liable for any injuries that can result from his conduct.

For instance, if a doctor is eating dinner at a restaurant, and one of the customers there begins to choke, he is under no obligation to help that person. The customer cannot sue the doctor for malpractice for failing to help him because he does not have a relationship with that doctor.

However, if the doctor decides to take it upon himself and help the customer, the doctor then opens himself up to a malpractice or negligence lawsuit if anything goes wrong. Once the doctor initiates a relationship with that person, he owes a medical duty of care to act in a manner that another doctor would act in similar circumstances.

If a patient decides to sue a doctor for negligence, the doctor may not be the only one at fault. The hospital that has hired the doctor may also be held to the same medical duty of care standard because, in hiring the doctor, the hospital agrees to supervise his actions. The hospital can then be held liable for the negligence of its employees.

Medical Malpractice and Negligence

For a patient to be successful in a medical malpractice case, he must be able to first show that the doctor owed him a duty of care. This is done by proving that the doctor and patient had a special relationship with one another at the time of the incident. Typically, all that is needed as proof of this relationship is the patient’s medical records and, occasionally, testimony that is given in court showing that the patient chose that doctor voluntarily and was then examined by that doctor.

The patient must then be able to show the level of care that would have been appropriate in his situation. This is to establish that the doctor may have been negligent in meeting the appropriate level of care for that patient. Should the court determine that the doctor was, in fact, negligent, the patient can be awarded damages based on his claim of malpractice.

Legal Duty of Care

A legal duty of care is very similar to a medical duty of care. The only difference is that this situation involves attorneys instead of doctors. Here, there must also exist a “special” relationship between an attorney and his client before a client can successfully sue the attorney for malpractice. An attorney who has not yet been retained on a case does not owe a legal duty of care to the person he has met with because that person is not yet his client.

Once the person retains the attorney for his case, he becomes a client. The attorney is then held to the same legal duty of care that other attorneys in similar situations and fields of law would be held to. This means that the attorney is responsible for acting in the client’s best interests, and to take all steps possible to prevent the client from incurring additional damages as the result of his claim.

Legal Malpractice and Negligence

Legal malpractice is similar to medical malpractice in that the malpractice occurs when an attorney is negligent in his duty of care to his client. Here, negligence amounts to an attorney not exercising “reasonable care,” meaning that he does not practice with the same level of skill that another attorney in a similar situation would. In order for a client to win a malpractice case, he must be able to prove that he would have won his case had it not been for his attorney’s negligence in handling the matter.

Duty of Care Example Involving a Student’s Illness

Cara Munn, a 15-year-old girl attending the private Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, participated in a summer program in China that was organized by the school in March of 2007. Among the materials that were sent home to parents in preparation for the trip were a link to the Center for Disease Control (CDC)’s webpage and a recommendation to pack bug spray. However, no warnings were included insofar as the insect-borne diseases that the students could contract while abroad.

On June 23, 2007, the students traveled to Mt. Pan, which is a forested mountain in China. No warnings about wearing bug spray were given prior to embarking on the trip. After hiking to the top of the mountain, Munn and some of the other students decided to hike back down while the group leader and the rest of the students took a cable car. On their way down, however, the students got lost and walked through trees and brush.

Munn received several insect bites and an itchy welt on her left arm. Ten days later, Munn awoke with a headache, wooziness, and a fever. Her conditioned worsened quickly to the point where she was taken to a local hospital. Munn was airlifted back to New York. By this point, she was severely ill, and partially paralyzed.

Upon her return, Munn was diagnosed with tick-borne encephalitis (“TBE”), a viral disease that attacks the central nervous system. Due to her illness, Munn lost the ability to speak, and had trouble controlling her facial muscles, which caused her to drool.

Munn and her parents sued Hotchkiss for neglecting the duty of care it owed to Munn. At trial, Munn, still unable to speak, testified via a machine into which she typed her answers. Munn’s mother testified that Munn’s condition led to “a lot of rejection,” and that she had also lost some cognitive function, especially in the areas of reading comprehension and math. Munn, however, managed to lead a functional life after the incident, finishing high school and attending college. She also continued to travel, play sports, and hold summer internships.

The jury found Hotchkiss guilty of negligence, and awarded the Munns $41.5 million in damages. On appeal, Hotchkiss argued that it was not legally obligated to warn the students about tick-borne diseases, nor was it their responsibility to protect the students from tick-borne encephalitis. The school also complained that the jury award was excessive.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit agreed with the Munns that there was indeed enough evidence for the jury to find that Munn’s illness was foreseeable. However, the court was unable to determine whether Hotchkiss could be held legally responsible for her condition.

The court ultimately remanded the case back to the Connecticut Supreme Court for the lower court to potentially deduce the answers to two questions:

  • If Connecticut’s public policy supported imposing a duty on Hotchkiss to warn students about, or protect them from, serious insect-borne diseases when organizing trips out of the country; and
  • If so, should the damages award then be reduced

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Audit – An official inspection of someone’s financial accounts.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Retain – To keep someone engaged in a service, such as an attorney.
  • Tort – An intentional or negligent act, a civil wrong, as opposed to a criminal act, which causes harm to another.

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