A defendant is not liable in negligence, even if she did not act with reasonable care, if she did not owe a duty to the plaintiff. In general, a person is under a duty to all persons at all times to exercise reasonable care for their physical safety and the safety of their property. This general standard of duty may lead to seemingly unjust results. For example, if a property owner leaves a deep hole in her backyard with no warnings or barriers around the hole, she should be liable if her guest falls into the hole. But what if a trespasser enters the backyard at night and falls into the hole? Although the property owner was negligent in failing to guard against someone falling into the hole, it would be unfair to require the property owner to compensate the trespasser for his injury. Therefore, the law states that a property owner does not have a duty to protect a trespasser from harm.
The law uses the concept of duty to limit the situations where a defendant is liable for a plaintiff's injury. Whether a defendant has a duty to protect the plaintiff from harm is a question decided by the court, not the jury. Over time, courts have developed numerous rules creating and limiting a person's duty to others, and sometimes duties are established or limited by statute. Whether the defendant owes the plaintiff a duty depends upon the relationship between the defendant and the plaintiff.
A preexisting relationship can create an affirmative duty to exercise reasonable care to protect another person from harm. For example, an inn has an affirmative duty to protect its guests, a school has a duty to its pupils, a store has a duty to its customers, and a lifeguard has a duty to swimmers.
One always has a duty to refrain from taking actions that endanger the safety of others, but usually one does not have a duty to render aid or prevent harm to a person from an independent cause. A common example of this limitation on duty is the lack of a duty to go to the aid of a person in peril. An expert swimmer with a boat and a rope has no duty to attempt to rescue a person who is drowning (although a hired lifeguard would). A physician who witnesses an automobile accident has no duty to offer emergency medical assistance to the accident victims.
Sometimes a person can voluntarily assume a duty where it would not otherwise exist. If the doctor who encounters an automobile accident decides to render aid to the victims, she is under a duty to exercise reasonable care in rendering that aid. As a result, doctors who have stopped along the highway to render medical assistance to accident victims have been sued for negligence. Many states have adopted "good samaritan" statutes to relieve individuals who render emergency assistance from negligence liability.
Even if a plaintiff establishes that the defendant had a duty to protect the plaintiff from
harm and breached that duty by failing to use reasonable care, the plaintiff must still prove that the defendant's negligence was the proximate cause of her injury.
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