What is a Duty of Care in Personal Injury Law?

If you’re considering a personal injury claim you may come across the phrase “duty of care”. Though it sounds straightforward, duty of care is a term of art that has special meaning within the law. When lawyers refer to duty of care they mean the amount of care a reasonable and prudent person would have in the same situation. Or, to put it another way, were the actions of the defendant objectively reasonable in that circumstance?


To best illustrate the meaning of duty of care, let’s look at two examples:

Example 1: Sam slips on a wet floor in the grocery store and suffers a concussion. The store owner has knowingly failed to dry a spill from an earlier customer. Sam wants to bring a lawsuit against the grocery store for his injuries.

Example 2: Sam slips on a wet floor in the grocery store and suffers a concussion. He wants to bring a lawsuit for personal injuries against the shopper standing next to him because the individual didn’t help him.

To determine whether Sam will be able to recover damages for his injuries from either party, we first must consider whether either party had a duty of care to Sam to protect him from injury.

In example 2, the shopper is a mere bystander without a direct relationship and therefore has no duty to Sam.

The store owner in example 1, on the other hand, has a relationship with Sam—Sam is the store owner’s invited customer. When a store is open for business, the owner “invites” patrons onto the property for the owner’s benefit—to make a sale. The law recognizes a special status of “invitee” in this circumstance. The existence of this status creates a recognized legal obligation, or “duty,” on the part of the store owner to conduct reasonable inspections and make the premises reasonably safe for the people he invites in for his benefit. The store owner does NOT insure the safety of Sam, but he must conduct reasonable inspections and eliminate or warn Sam of any dangers that the owner knew or should know of by conducting a reasonable inspection of the property.

Elements of the Slip and Fall Claim

For a successful slip and fall injury claim, the plaintiff must prove the following elements:

  • The existence of a duty of care,
  • A breach of the duty of care,
  • Damages,
  • and the damages were a direct result of the breach of duty.

Revisiting example 1, the store owner owed Sam a duty to inspect the premises and make it reasonably safe for shoppers. That duty may have been breached if he either failed to conduct a reasonable inspection and discover the water, or he discovered the water and failed to take reasonable steps to clean it up or warn Sam. This would be negligence. Sam clearly suffered damages in the form of a concussion, so if Sam can prove that the store owner was negligent, then Sam has a case against the store owner.


As you can see from above, a duty of care is one element you must prove to win a personal injury claim. For a personal injury claim to succeed, the injured victim has the burden to prove both that the law imposes a duty of care upon someone based upon their relationship to the injured party and that the person violated the duty that the law imposes.