“Duty of Care” in a California Personal Injury Case

In California, “duty of care” refers to the legal obligation to use reasonable care to avoid injuring others. In order to prevail in a California personal injury case, a plaintiff must show that:

  1. The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care;
  2. The defendant breached that duty; and
  3. As a result of that breach, the plaintiff was injured.1

duty of care is most often created by:

  • A federal, California, or local law or administrative statute; or
  • A federal or California state court decision setting forth the so-called "common law."

Some people owe a special duty of care to others because of the nature of their relationship. For instance, teachers owe a special duty to students in their care. Airlines owe a special duty to passengers.

But even in the absence of a relationship created by law, California law requires each person to exercise “ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person.”2

To help you better understand “duty of care” in a California personal injury case, our California personal injury lawyers discuss, below:

You may also wish to see our articles on strict liability, negligence, gross negligence, recklessness and intentional torts in California.

doctor with clipboard explaining something to a patient

1. The legal definition of “duty of care” in California

There is no specific legal definition of "duty of care" in California. But the California Supreme Court has embraced the idea that people are legally obligated to prevent foreseeable harm to others when it is reasonable for them to do so.3

In some instances, a specific duty of care is set forth in a federal, California or local statute.

For instance, doctors and other medical professionals have a legal duty to use reasonable skill, knowledge, and care in diagnosing and treating illness and injuries.4

But even where there is no special duty of care, California law imposes a general duty of care. This obligation is set forth in California Civil Code section 1714(a), which provides in part:

“Everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person, except so far as the latter has, willfully or by want of ordinary care, brought the injury upon himself or herself."

2. What are some common duties of care in California?

Examples of common duties of care in California include (but are not limited to): 

3. How a court determines whether a duty of care exists

Whether a duty of care exists in a given case is a question of law for a judge to decide.

Once the judge has set forth the standard, whether a party's conduct has conformed to the standard is a question of fact for the jury (or, in a bench trial, the judge).11

The California Supreme Court has set forth a number of factors that a court should consider in deciding whether the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff:

  • The foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff;
  • The degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury;
  • The closeness of the connection between the defendant's conduct and the plaintiff's injury;
  • The moral blame attached to the defendant's conduct;
  • The policy of preventing future harm;
  • The extent of the burden to the defendant;
  • The consequences to the community of imposing a duty to exercise care with resulting liability for breach; and
  • The availability, cost, and prevalence of insurance for the risk involved.12

4. How a jury determines whether the obligation was breached

Once the judge has determined that there is a duty of care, it is the jury's job to apply the facts of the case to the standard the judge sets forth.

Factors the jury may base its decision on include (but are not limited to):

  • Expert testimony about the skill and knowledge required in a particular profession;
  • Expert testimony about the skill and knowledge used by the defendant;
  • Accident reconstruction experts;
  • Testimony about custom and practice within a particular industry or group of people;13 and
  • Whether the defendant could have reasonably foreseen the risk or injury resulting from his or her conduct.14
Example: Roger is driving a big rig delivering furniture for ABC Company. Roger fails to secure the load. While cruising down the 110 Freeway, several coffee tables and sofas fall out the back of the truck onto the freeway. Tammy swerves to avoid the road debris, causing her to spin out, flip her car and sustain major injuries.
In a lawsuit for an accident caused by road debris, a jury is likely to find that Roger and ABC violated their duty of care towards other motorists by not properly securing the load. Tammy is likely to recover damages for her injuries and pain and suffering. 

Injured by someone's negligence? Call us for help…

If you have been injured by someone else's breach of a duty of care, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation to discuss your case.

Call us at (855) LAWFIRM to discuss your case in confidence with an experienced California injury lawyer.

If you've been injured in Nevada, you may wish to review our page on Nevada's duty of care.

Legal references:

  1. See, e.g., California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 400, setting for the essential factual elements of a negligence claim.
  2. See, e.g., CACI 411. "Every person has a right to expect that every other person will use reasonable care [and will not violate the law], unless he or she knows, or should know, that the other person will not use reasonable care [or will violate the law]."
  3. Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal. 2d 108.
  4. CACI 501; California Code of Civil Procedure 340.5; Flowers v. Torrance Memorial Hospital Medical Center (1994) 8 Cal.4th 992.
  5. See, e.g., CACI 710.
  6. CACI 1221.
  7. CACI 1001.
  8. See end note 4.
  9. California Civil Code 44 and subsequent sections.
  10. See, e.g., CACI 426 on Negligent Hiring, Supervision, or Retention of Employee, Sources and Authorities.
  11. Ramirez v. Plough, Inc (1993) 6 Cal.4th 539.
  12. Rowland, endnote 3.
  13. CACI 413.
  14. See Weirum v. RKO Gen., Inc. (1975) 15 Cal. 3d 40.

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