Explaining personal injury law to a client can sometimes be difficult. I think we lawyers can get so caught up in the complexity of a personal injury case that we sometimes forget the basic principles that underline tort law. I honestly had no idea what a “Tort” or personal injury action involved when I started law school (I thought it was a dessert). So, I’ve decided to post a series I call “Back to Basics.” In these posts, I will examine the basic principles and rules that make up Washington Tort law.
Tort is a wrong that involves a breach of a civil duty. Although there are intentional torts, the vast majority of personal injury actions involve negligence. To establish a negligence action, the plaintiff must generally prove four elements: (1) The defendant owed duty to the plaintiff to exercise reasonable care, (2) the defendant breached the duty of care owed to the plaintiff, (3) the defendant’s breach of his/her duty caused the plaintiff’s injuries, and (4) the plaintiff suffered damages as a result of the defendant’s breach. Today, we are going to focus on the first element: duty to use reasonable care.
Washington court’s have defined duty as “an obligation, to which the law will give recognition and effect, to conform to a particular standard of conduct toward another.” Hansen v. Friend, 118 Wn.2d 467 (1992). Clear as mud, right? Take driving a car for example. When I operate a car, I have a duty to operate the car with reasonable care. I can’t drive my car on a sidewalk or down the wrong side of the road. In essence, when I take my car out on a Sunday afternoon drive, Washington law imposes upon me a duty to use reasonable care.
Now, the duty to use reasonable care takes on a different meaning depending on the relationship of the parties or facts of a case. A passenger carrier is held to a high degree of care for the safety of its passengers. This duty includes protecting passengers from the misconduct of other passengers.
But don’t be fooled into believing that a duty of reasonable care exists between all individuals or in all situations. It does not. Take for example A, a registered nurse. One day, A is out walking and comes across B, who is dying in the street. A has no duty to save B’s life. Therefore, if B dies, B’s estate cannot sue A.
For Back to Basics, Part II, I will discuss the second element: breach.