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What is the Duty of Care?

Felicia Dye
Felicia Dye

Duty of care is a legal term used to describe a standard of behavior that is expected of a person or organization. Such standards will generally vary depending on the roles of the individuals in a given relationship, but this term can apply to standards in a wide range of situations. Often, there are laws that hold people responsible for actions that are considered unreasonable given the situation. The principle supporting duty of care is generally sensibility.

Societies that allow legal remedy for duty of care generally do so with the intention of discouraging recklessness and intentional harm or suffering. In these societies, people are expected to act reasonably when dealing with other people. Generally, when a person claims that another party has violated this standard, a court makes a determination based upon the way that most reasonable individuals would have acted in the same circumstances.

Businessman with a briefcase
Businessman with a briefcase

The relationship between the two parties is important because how one party treats another is affected by their roles. For example, if a man knows that his wife is hurt, he is expected to act differently than a stranger would act if the stranger knows the same woman is hurt. In some societies, duties are imposed upon strangers in situations such as this. In other cultures, however, a person is not obligated to assist a stranger even if he knows that the situation the stranger is in could be life-threatening.

Expectations of how a person should act are also affected when the relationship that exists between two parties is a professional one. When a professional, such as doctor or lawyer, is accused of violating her duty of care, she may be sued for negligence. A doctor, for example, has a duty to treat her patients with the competence and efficiency of her peers. If she does not, and her actions result in harm, she may be found guilty on the grounds that she did not fulfill her responsibilities.

Such standards can exist in situations other than those that involve two individuals. It may be found that a business neglected its duty to another business, for example, or that a party has violated standards of care regarding things such as animals or the environment.

Since duty of care is generally a tort, a person is not usually sent to prison if a court finds that she did not act sensibly. In many cases, the consequences involve the payment of damages. There may also be professional repercussions, such as the loss of licensing or the forced closure of a business.

Discussion Comments


@Fa5t3r - Doctors have the same problem. If someone is weeping in your waiting room, do you give them a hug, or respond in some physical way, or do you avoid all contact? I guess you can be guided by the actions of the person in question, but it is still difficult.

I do believe in autonomy and that people should be allowed to maintain their personal space, but sometimes someone just needs a hug and just doesn't know how to ask for one.


@indigomoth - I'm not sure that exactly falls under duty of care. Perhaps it's the duty of the employer to make sure the teacher isn't going to be harmed, but it seems more like actions to prevent harm to the teacher (since I doubt anyone who really wanted to harm a student would care about these rules).

It does bring up an interesting problem for teachers though. I've taught kindergarten aged kids and they just want to hug and hold onto you all the time. How do you make sure that it stays appropriate? Because I would think that it would actually be more harmful to push them away, or not touch them when they've, say, fallen over and want a hug. I would think you'd have a duty of care to act in a warm manner, but these days it's a fine line to walk.


Teachers are another group that need to be very aware of their obligations under whatever duty of care rules their school follows.

For example, one that might not occur to some people is that in most schools male teachers (or all teachers) are not allowed to be alone with students. Not ever. It's not just to protect the students, it's also to protect the teachers, who could possibly be accused of doing something they did not do.

The same goes for any kind of touching, and personal comments. Anything that could be misconstrued needs to be handled very carefully.

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      Businessman with a briefcase