Duty of Care in United States
Duty of Care
The duty of the defendant to act as a reasonably prudent person. This duty may be elevated to one of utmost care in certain situations such as bailors.
The breach of the duty of due care
Any act that fails to meet a standard of the person’s duty of due care toward others. The standard is usually described as the standard of behavior that is expected of a hypothetical “reasonable person” under the circumstances. Certain professionals, however, may be held to a higher standard than the ordinary person. (1)
Standard of Care
Not every unintentional act that causes injury is negligent. If you brake to a stop when you see a child dart out in front of your car, and if the noise from your tires gives someone in a nearby house a heart attack, you have not acted negligently toward the person in the house. The purpose of the negligence standard is to protect others against the risk of injury that foreseeably would ensue from unreasonably dangerous conduct.
Given the infinite variety of human circumstances and conduct, no general statement of a reasonable standard of care is possible. Nevertheless, the law has tried to encapsulate it in the form of the famous standard of “the reasonable man.” This fictitious person “of ordinary prudence” is the model that juries are instructed to compare defendants with in assessing whether those defendants have acted negligently. Analysis of this mythical personage has baffled several generations of commentators.
How much knowledge must he have of events in the community, of technology, of cause and effect? With what physical attributes, courage, or wisdom is this nonexistent person supposedly endowed? If the defendant is a person with specialized knowledge, like a doctor or an automobile designer, must the jury also treat the “reasonable man” as having this knowledge, even though the average person in the community will not? (Answer: in most cases, yes.)
Despite the many difficulties, the concept of the reasonable man is one on which most negligence cases ultimately turn. If a defendant has acted “unreasonably under the circumstances” and his conduct posed an unreasonable risk of injury, then he is liable for injury caused by his conduct. Perhaps in most instances, it is not difficult to divine what the reasonable man would do.
The reasonable man stops for traffic lights and always drives at reasonable speeds, does not throw baseballs through windows, performs surgical operations according to the average standards of the medical profession, ensures that the floors of his grocery store are kept free of fluids that would cause a patron to slip and fall, takes proper precautions to avoid spillage of oil from his supertanker, and so on. The “reasonable man” standard imposes hindsight on the decisions and actions of people in society; the circumstances of life are such that courts may sometimes impose a standard of due care that many people might not find reasonable. (2)
Negligence and Breach of Duty of Care
Breach of duty in negligence liability may be found to exist where the defendant fails to meet the standard of care required by law. Failure to satisfy ethical, legal, or moral obligations, specially where someone has a corresponding right to demand the satisfaction. A breach of duty occurs when one person or company has a duty of care toward another person or company, but fails to live up to that standard.
Duty of Care and Its Breach
The law does not impose on us a duty to care for every person. If the rule were otherwise, we would all, in this interdependent world, be our brothers’ keepers, constantly unsure whether any action we took might subject us to liability for its effect on someone else. The law copes with this difficulty by limiting the number of people toward whom we owe a duty to be careful.
In general, the law imposes no obligation to act in a situation to which we are strangers. We may pass the drowning child without risking a lawsuit. But if we do act, then the law requires us to act carefully. The law of negligence requires us to behave with due regard for the foreseeable consequences of our actions in order to avoid unreasonable risks of injury.
During the course of the twentieth century, the courts have constantly expanded the notion of “foreseeability,” so that today many more people are held to be within the zone of injury than was once the case. For example, it was once believed that a manufacturer or supplier owed a duty of care only to immediate purchasers, not to others who might use the product or to whom the product might be resold. This limitation was known as the rule of privity. And users who were not immediate purchasers were said not to be in privity with a supplier or manufacturer. In 1916, Judge Benjamin N. Cardozo, then on the New York Court of Appeals, penned an opinion in a celebrated case that exploded the theory of privity, though it would take half a century before the last state—Mississippi in 1966—would fall in line.
Determining a duty of care can be a vexing problem. Physicians, for example, are bound by principles of medical ethics to respect the confidences of their patients. Suppose a patient tells a psychiatrist that he intends to kill his girlfriend. Does the physician then have a higher legal duty to warn prospective victim? The California Supreme Court has said yes.Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California, 551 P.2d 334 (Calif. 1976).
Establishing a breach of the duty of due care where the defendant has violated a statute or municipal ordinance is eased considerably with the doctrine of negligence per se, a doctrine common to all US state courts. If a legislative body sets a minimum standard of care for particular kinds of acts to protect a certain set of people from harm and a violation of that standard causes harm to someone in that set, the defendant is negligent per se. If Harvey is driving sixty-five miles per hour in a fifty-five-mile-per-hour zone when he crashes into Haley’s car and the police accident report establishes that or he otherwise admits to going ten miles per hour over the speed limit, Haley does not have to prove that Harvey has breached a duty of due care. She will only have to prove that the speeding was an actual and proximate cause of the collision and will also have to prove the extent of the resulting damages to her. (3)
Duty of Care (Directors, Officers)
This section introduces, discusses and describes the basics of duty of care. Then, cross references and a brief overview about Directors, Officers is provided. Finally, the subject of Banking Law in relation with duty of care is examined. Note that a list of cross references, bibliography and other resources appears at the end of this entry.
- “Business and the Legal Environment”, by Don Mayer, Daniel M. Warner and George J. Siedel.