What Is Breach of Duty in a Personal Injury Case?
When an injured plaintiff brings a personal injury lawsuit, one of the elements he must prove is “breach of duty.” But what exactly does that mean? And what kind of proof does it require? Let’s start with the concept of duty itself.
In general, common law recognizes that people in society owe a duty to act reasonably so as not to injure others. This is sometimes called a duty of care. Much of what the law requires is common sense and common courtesy. We don’t dash down a crowded staircase or push to get onto a train. Sometimes duty is codified in our laws, such as the traffic laws we must obey while driving.
A breach of duty occurs when a person behaves unreasonably. The commuter who shoves someone on the platform so that he can get on the train before the doors close is either careless or reckless. Same for the driver who makes a lane change without signaling. And, needless to say, a person who commits a deliberate assault has breached the duty of care.
Duty of care often depends on the relationship of the people involved. Two strangers have a very limited duty to refrain from doing anything to injure the other either accidentally or deliberately, as described above. The fact that one of the strangers might be a doctor does not impose on him a duty to comment on the other stranger’s cough and offer a diagnosis.
However, when the parties enter into a contractual relationship, the duty changes. The doctor now has a duty to perform at a professional standard, not simply as a reasonable person. His adherence to his duty is judged against the performance of other doctors, not against other people generally. So, if a doctor misdiagnoses a patient’s heart condition, it doesn’t matter that the man on the street might have made the same mistake. What matters is whether another reasonably well-trained and competent doctor would have missed the diagnosis. If other competent doctors would not have made the same mistake, the doctor has breached his duty of care.
Landlords also have a higher duty of care. If two strangers are dining in a restaurant, one does not have a duty to warn the other about a spill on the floor, although that would be nice to do. The restaurant owner and by extension the restaurant’s employees have a duty to discover the spill, warn about it, and remove it. Failure in this regard is a breach of duty.
Although duty and breach are well established legal principles, whether a defendant had a duty, how far that duty extends, and whether a breach occurred are often points of dispute in personal injury cases. Because of potential complexities, you should only entrust your case to an experienced personal injury attorney.