Breach of Duty

If you suffer an injury because of someone else’s wrongful or negligent behavior, you may qualify for compensation. You must prove your claim either in court or in an insurance claim.

To win a personal injury claim based on negligence, you must prove four facts, known as “elements”:

  • The defendant owed a duty of care to the victim;
  • The defendant breached their duty of care;
  • The defendant’s breach of duty caused the victim’s damages; and
  • The victim suffered damages (harm).

Proving the first of these two, duty and breach of duty, establishes the defendant’s negligence. To establish liability (and entitle yourself to money damages), you must also prove damages and causation.

Duty of Care vs. Breach of Duty: An Issue of Law vs. An Issue of Fact

Duty of Care vs. Breach of Duty: An Issue of Law vs. An Issue of Fact

The exact nature of a defendant’s duty of care is a matter of law. Whether the defendant breached their duty of care is a question of fact. The judge typically decides the duty of care issue, while the jury decides the breach of duty issue.  

Different Duties of Care

Duties of care come in different varieties. 

  • The “reasonable person” standard is the most common and applies to ordinary people in everyday situations. Examples include drivers, who have a duty to obey traffic laws, and property owners, who have a duty to keep their premises reasonably safe for guests.
  • A professional must exercise a heightened degree of care when practicing their profession. Differences exist even within the same profession. A neurosurgeon, for example, must exercise a higher degree of care than a general practitioner.

In some cases, you need an expert witness to testify on the duty of care that the defendant owed under particular circumstances.

Examples of Breaches of the Duty of Care

A breach of a duty of care is defined by the nature of the duty. Most negligence cases examine whether a person failed to act as a reasonable person and injured another. If they didn’t, they breached their duty of care. 

The “reasonable person” is not a real individual. Rather, it is a hypothetical person that acts with good judgment and prudence to avoid harming others. The jury ultimately decides whether a defendant acted as a reasonable person in the circumstances that led to a plaintiff’s injury. They make their determination based on the evidence the parties present at trial.

Some common examples of breaches of a duty of care include:

  • Someone takes the wheel of a car while intoxicated on alcohol;
  • A property owner fails to repair or warn guests of a loose stair railing or other dangerous conditions on their property;
  • A doctor fails to order lab tests when a patient complains of symptoms that need testing;
  • An apartment dweller forgets to turn off their stove, starting a fire that engulfs the building; and
  • The owner of a public parking garage in a high-crime neighborhood fails to provide security for customers.

It is probably impossible to list all the ways to breach a duty of care. 

Expert Witnesses

In complex cases, you might need an expert witness to offer a professional opinion on the nature of the defendant’s duty of care and whether the defendant breached that duty. Common experts include expert medical witnesses in medical malpractice claims and accident reconstruction experts in truck accident cases.

Negligence Per Se: A Shortcut to Liability

An action does not have to be illegal to constitute a breach of the duty of care. In many cases, the question of breach is a matter of common sense. In other cases, however, the victim will attempt to use proof that the defendant violated the law as a shortcut to proving negligence. This shortcut is called “negligence per se.”

Different states treat negligence per se in different ways. In Maryland, proving that the defendant breached a statute is not automatic proof of negligence. Under certain circumstances, however, it is evidence of negligence that the jury can consider. It is possible to conclude that a defendant acted reasonably under the circumstances even though they violated the law. To win their claim, the victim must also prove that the defendant’s negligence caused them harm.

Beware of Maryland’s Contributory Negligence Rule

When the victim and the defendant share blame for the accident, most states will apply the principle of comparative negligence. With this rule, the court reduced a victim’s compensation in proportion to their degree of fault for the accident (20%, for example). Many states will refuse to order any compensation if the victim’s comparative negligence exceeds a threshold amount, such as 49% or 50%.

Maryland‌ is one of only a handful of states that applies the older principle of contributory negligence. Under contributory negligence, the victim receives zero compensation if they were even 1% at fault. The Maryland Court of Appeals established this harsh rule in the 1847 case Irwin v. Sprigg. Since then, the Maryland legislature has refused to modify it. No matter how negligent the defendant was, you will receive nothing if you were even slightly at fault. 

You are Going to Need a Lawyer for Any Significant Maryland Personal Injury Claim

If you have a Maryland personal injury claim of significant size, proving it will present substantial challenges, especially given Maryland’s contributory negligence regime. A personal injury lawyer can help you maximize your chances of victory. Contact us today for a free consultation with a Baltimore personal injury lawyer.