“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.

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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): 

  • The duty of drivers to obey traffic laws so as to avoid car accidents and injuries to pedestrians;5
  • The duty of manufacturers to use reasonable care to avoid producing a dangerous product;6
  • The duty of a property owner to maintain premises in a safe condition in order to avoid slip-and-fall accidents and other injuries;7
  • The duty of medical professionals to use reasonable skill, knowledge, and care in diagnosing and treating illness and injuries;8
  • The duty not to publish false “facts” about someone (defamation);9 and
  • The duty of an employer not to hire someone who might pose a danger to customers or other employees.10 

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

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

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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.

Our California personal injury lawyers know how to establish all the factors of a personal injury case.

Whether you've been the victim of legal malpractice, products liability, defamation, sexual abuse, or just ordinary, everyday negligence, we will fight to protect your rights.

Call us at (855) 396-0370 to discuss your case with a caring and knowledgeable lawyer.

The statute of limitations on your right to sue may be running out, so call us today.

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, end note 3.
  13. CACI 413.
  14. See Weirum v. RKO Gen., Inc. (1975) 15 Cal. 3d 40.

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