A breach of duty is a failure to live up to a required standard of care. This type of violation is often the source of civil lawsuits, and forms the backbone of many negligence or malpractice cases. A person commits a breach of duty if he or she has a requirement to meet a standard and fails to do so, to the evident harm of the plaintiff.
The concept dates back to English common law. The legal idea, which dates back for several centuries, requires first that the defendant be considered a reasonable person with a duty of care for the plaintiff. This means that the defendant must be of at least average intelligence and experience, and must be undertaking a task that reasonably could be seen as possibly dangerous to the safety or well-being of the plaintiff. Doctors, dentists, drivers, manufacturers of consumer products, and financial advisors can all be seen as providing a service that could endanger the health or safety of customers or clients, and thus may be more vulnerable to breach of duty lawsuits.
Some legal scholars suggest such a case may not be isolated to a customer and service provider relationship. Anyone in close proximity to another person may be seen as having a reasonable duty of care to protect others from their own activities. A person putting chemicals in a shared water source, for instance, may be seen as having a duty of care to any other people that use the water.
Another important issue to consider when discussing the concept is the definition of an acceptable standard of care. Malpractice suits often hinge on this issue, as it is important for defendants to prove that a doctor or medical care specialist provided bad or injurious care out of actual negligence. The courts must often determine whether a doctor or other professional accused of breach of duty acted correctly in the given circumstances and still got a poor result, or acted against the standard of care and thus injured the plaintiff. The standard of care depends on the type of industry in question, and the court may use the testimony of expert witnesses to create an informed opinion on whether an injury or loss was due to a breach of duty or unfortunate accident.
Since these cases are typically handled in civil courts, punishments are often in the form of fines or monetary damages paid to the successful plaintiff. In some cases, the court may also request or require a suspension of a professional license if negligence is proven, though it is often up to the licensing body to make this determination. Breach of duty cases are often quite complicated and rarely cut and dry issues, since absolute negligence is often very hard to prove.