What Does “Duty of Care” Mean in a Southern California Injury Case?

January 1, 2024 Personal injury

Personal injury law in Southern California and elsewhere across the United States is based on the premise that all people owe a duty of care toward others in their vicinity. When a person breaches—or fails to uphold—this duty of care, they’ve committed an act of negligence and put others at risk. Proving that a defendant in a personal injury claim in California owed a duty of care to the injury victim is the first step in meeting the burden of evidence in a claim for damages.

Before you consider making a claim to recover damages like medical expenses, lost wages, and compensation for pain and suffering, first it’s important to look at the “duty of care” standards in California to see how they apply in your case.

Understanding General Duty of Care in California

Like all states, California’s civil courts assert that all citizens owe others in their orbit a reasonable assurance of safety. This requires preventing any foreseeable harm from coming to others by acting prudently or taking reasonable measures to prevent causing injury to others. This leaves every person responsible for the consequences of their willful actions if they cause injury to others according to California Civil Code § 1714.

Examples of the general duty of care that all people owe to others include the following:

  • Drivers owe a duty of care to others on the road to follow traffic laws and avoid distractions to prevent the foreseeable harm of causing a car accident
  • Business owners owe a duty of care to prevent injury to those on the property for commercial business purposes including the duty to promptly address spills and puddles to prevent slip-and-fall accidents
  • A pet owner has a duty of care to prevent their dog from biting anyone who is lawfully on their property or exposed to their dog in public places

When personal injury cases come to court, judges first evaluate whether or not the defendant owed the injury victim a general duty of care to take reasonable measures to prevent causing them injury. A judge may consider whether or not the consequences of the defendant’s actions or inaction were foreseeable and whether or not the victim’s injury was the direct result of the defendant’s actions.

Breaching the General Duty of Care

Once it’s established that an individual or business owed a duty of care to take reasonable measures to prevent injury to others, proving the defendant liable for damages requires demonstrating through evidence that they breached their duty of care. Often, this comes down to asking the question, “Would another reasonable person have acted differently in the same circumstances?” For example, if a driver is commuting to work in the morning and they are holding a hot cup of coffee in one hand and checking a phone notification with the other, the risk of causing injury to others to whom they owe a duty of care is foreseeable. Another reasonable driver wouldn’t behave the same way in these circumstances. If the driver’s negligence causes an injury because they hit a pedestrian in a crosswalk, they are liable for the damages.

Did the Breach of Duty Cause Injury and Damages to the Victim?

The final step of proving liability in a personal injury claim requires proving that the defendant’s breach of the general duty of care caused an injury to the victim and that the victim suffered “damages” from the injury. In a personal injury claim, the word “damages” refers to the economic consequences of the injury like medical costs and lost income, and non-economic damages like pain and suffering. Medical reports and receipts for medical treatment as well as proof of lost income help prove that the injury victim suffered damages directly due to the defendant’s negligence.

What is a “Special Duty of Care” in Southern California Injury Claims?

Some individuals owe more than a general duty of care to specific people due to a professional relationship. A doctor owes a special duty of care to a patient. Doctors are expected to use reasonable skills, care, and medical knowledge to treat patients. They must uphold the standards of treatment accepted by the medical community. If they breach this special duty of care they’ve committed malpractice which is actionable negligence.

If you have questions about Southern California’s duty of care standards and how they apply to your case, an experienced Encino personal injury attorney can help.

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