Duty of Care

What Is Duty of Care?

Duty of care is a term for the legal responsibility of maintaining the health and well-being of others. Each of us has a moral obligation to take care not to harm someone else. Examples are putting fences around our swimming pool or driving at a slower speed when we see children.

In a legal sense, a duty of care is a fiduciary responsibility that applies in areas where other people rely on you. A doctor has the duty of care to give you proper medical attention, and a factory owner has the duty of care to maintain a safe working environment, providing safety goggles and earplugs, for example.

Duty of care only applies in the areas for which you rely on that other party. For instance, a doctor does not owe you duty of care for your finances. And the factory owner does not owe you duty of care for the safety of your home.

With a conservatorship, the duty of care is for an individual's financial affairs. Under incorporation, the directors or officers of a company have the duty of care to make prudent decisions in the corporation's best interest.

What Constitutes a Breach of Duty of Care?

A breach of duty of care happens when a person or organization fails to meet a specific standard of care needed for that situation, causing someone else to be harmed.

In a breach of duty of care legal case, the courts will consider the following factors in their review:

  • Could the defendant have foreseen the risk of harm to the plaintiff and prevented the harm from occurring?
  • Were alternatives or adjustments available that could have prevented the harm?
  • Were these safer alternatives a plausible option for the defendant?

If the court determines that the defendant's conduct did not meet the required standard of care, the defendant has breached their duty of care.

What Are Examples of Duty of Care?

The duty of care for each individual or organization varies depending on the service or product they offer. A widespread example of duty of care occurred when many businesses switched to remote work for their office employees during the pandemic.

In the U.S., some duty of care obligations are set by federal, state, or local laws. Examples are the rest breaks and family leave laws that are designed for workers' health and well-being.

A workplace manager's duty of care may include the following elements:

  • providing and maintaining a safe physical work environment
  • following appropriate industry standards and statutory safety regulations
  • ensuring employees work a reasonable number of hours and take adequate rest breaks
  • conducting work-based risk assessments
  • protecting employees from discrimination, workplace bullying, harassment, and discrimination
  • providing employees with clear job descriptions
  • holding appropriate training sessions
  • offering employees opportunities to raise their concerns and offer feedback

What Laws Affect Duty of Care?

Laws can affect the concept of duty of care depending on the type of business or service in question. For example, a pharmacist's duty of care is quite different than a tax preparer's duty of care.

The laws influencing duty of care can also vary according to the location of the business or service. In the U.S., the Department of Labor sets many of the federal laws affecting duty of care. Here are a few examples:

In the U.S., individual states control many important laws for establishing duty of care, and they vary from state to state.

Standard of Care vs. Duty of Care

Standard of care is the term the courts use to determine whether an individual or organization was negligent in their duty of care. The court seeks to identify the standard of care for that industry and how it applies to the case. If an individual or organization does not follow that accepted or reasonable standard, they are liable for negligence.

In tort law, a verdict of negligence requires four conditions to have been met. The conditions are duty of care, breach of duty of care, harm, and causation. The standard of care requirements depend on circumstances and the due diligence the person or organization performed.

For example, a medical or standard of care typically relies on scientific evidence and collaboration between medical professionals involved in the treatment of a condition.

Helpful Resources:

MindTools - What Is a Duty of Care?

Cornell Law - Duty of Care - Negligence & Breach of Duty of Care