Understanding Breach of Duty of Care & Negligence
Don’t let your ignorance result in negligence. Learn all about breach of duty of care and how to protect your people and your liability.
Accidents happen all the time. But an accident that happens on your watch to people who are in your care? That’s not a matter to write off as “bound to happen.” Every business has a duty of care to its employees and customers to prevent harm and provide reasonable care while they are working or using the services or facility.
The modern foundation of duty of care dates back to early British tort law (civil cases rather than criminal ones) in the late 1800s, when industrial businesses were first held responsible for the harm their employees faced and/or their products caused.
Heaven v. Pender
In 1883, a dock worker was painting a ship when the ropes holding them up broke, and they fell and were injured. It was determined that the dock owner had installed the faulty rigging. The judgement from Sir William Brett included the first mention of a general duty of care.
“If any person with ordinary sense realizes that if they did not exercise proper care and skill, damage could be occasioned to another or another’s property from their actions, they should be held liable.”
This foundation of general duty was then cited in several landmark product liability cases in the early 1900s—including the U.S. case of MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co. (1916) and the U.K. case of Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932)—which established the precedent of a general duty of care in modern law.
We will explain what a breach of duty of care is today, some examples that show it in action, and go through what you can do to prevent damaging accidents. That way, you don’t have to first learn about your duty of care from a personal injury lawyer during a lawsuit. You’ll be prepared to prevent negligence and protect your people and liability.
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What Is Breach of Duty?
A breach of duty of care is when a person or organization fails to provide a reasonable level of care.
For an incident to be considered a true breach of duty in a negligence claim, a few things must be established:
- The person or organization owed a duty of care to the victim of the incident
- The defendant’s actions or inactions breached that duty
- The victim was harmed because of the breach
- That harm caused the damages to the injury victim
Breach of duty vs. negligence
Breach of duty and negligence are often used in tandem and often factor closely together in lawsuits. Specifically, negligence occurs when a breach of duty causes harm to someone and when that harm could have been foreseen. For example, if a business leader knows their floor is slippery when wet and fails to put up a sign to warn people, it is considered negligence if someone slips and gets hurt. There is a clear line of causation between the at-fault party’s actions and the harm to the victim.
Carelessness at a casino
An Ohio casino faced a lawsuit over breach of duty of care when it failed to protect a visitor from slipping and hurting themself in the casino. Employees were going about their jobs, and customers moved between the bars and tables and machines. In the middle of a walkway, there was a “wet floor” sign that had fallen over. One employee saw the fallen sign but did not return it to a proper position before a visitor stepped on it, slipping and falling, causing an injury.
When the case went to trial, the court had to determine if it was “just an accident” or a breach of duty of care and an act of negligence. The jury ruled that the business had been negligent and breached its duty of care, and the visitor was awarded $3 million.
There is also a more specific kind of negligence case—negligence per se—that occurs when someone knowingly breaks a law designed to prevent harm. For example, if a business knowingly violates OSHA guidelines and an employee gets hurt, that would be negligence per se.
These are both different from strict liability, which is when someone is liable for damages even if there was no breach of duty or negligence. This sometimes is a matter of product liability, when a product is faulty, or it can be a premises liability issue where a property owner is liable for injuries on their premises. There are no elements of negligence, but they must still cover damages.
Breach of Duty of Care Examples
Breaking down these legal topics can be confusing, so here are a few examples—both real and hypothetical—to illustrate what’s in play.
Manufacturing facilities and warehouses are areas prone to accidents if not properly maintained. Some fire hazards, like an electrical short circuit, are hard to predict, but others are easy to see in advance and can be mitigated with the right care. For example, if a hardwood manufacturing center does not provide the time or resources for clearing out sawdust and a fire starts and injures an employee, this would be considered a breach of duty of care. A reasonable person would ensure that any fire hazards are cleaned up regularly.
Alerting traveling employees to risks
Your duty of care extends to traveling workers, as well as those in your facility. Say a business has sent employees abroad and learns about rising civil unrest in the area. If the business fails to inform its employees about the risk and the employees get injured or harmed in the commotion, that would be a breach of duty of care.
An example of a breach of duty by medical professionals involves a patient who had been complaining of abdominal pain for nearly 18 months and had several referrals for a colonoscopy. These concerns were not adequately addressed by hospital staff until many months later when they found the patient had a life-threatening tumor that an early colonoscopy could have discovered. The patient lived but suffered large medical bills and lost earnings, and they endured pain and suffering. This kind of medical negligence is a classic example of how a breach of duty looks in healthcare.
What Does Duty of Care Mean for Your Business?
You have a legal obligation to provide a reasonable standard of care for people in your facility, and any breach of the duty of care can result in legal battles over personal injury claims, medical malpractice cases in the case of healthcare facilities, and an increased risk of harm to your employees, customers, and guests.
To ensure your business has its duty of care covered, understand your responsibility, take active steps to ensure it is fulfilled, and stay ahead of any potential new risks. If you’re looking for a toolset to help you stay ahead of risks and fulfill your duty of care, learn more about how AlertMedia can give you a leg up.