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What does breach of the duty of care mean under Massachusetts law?

Personal injury cases can be complicated, and in some situations, it might be unclear whether the injuries you have suffered will evolve into a legal case. The most common way to prove fault in a personal injury case is to show that the person who caused your injuries was negligent. Under Massachusetts tort law, negligence is defined as “conduct that falls below the standard established by law for the protection of other against unreasonable risk of harm.” In simpler terms, a person is negligent when their actions or failure to act results in harm to another.

Does this mean that negligence law should leave people worried about their every move? No: under Massachusetts law, we understand that there is a difference between a simple accident and acting with negligence. Two of the key elements of negligence are proof that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care, and proof that the defendant subsequently breached that duty.

In Massachusetts, there is a duty of care owed to every foreseeable person. A duty of care means our actions require us to reduce the risk of hurting others. We are responsible to calibrate and adjust our conduct to care for other people. Generally, a duty of care is established if there is some sort of legal relationship between the plaintiff and defendant. For example, a driver of a car owes a duty to all fellow drivers to drive with reasonable caution and to obey all traffic laws. Failure to do so may result in a breach of duty.

Once a duty of care is established, the defendant will only be liable for negligence if he or she is in breach of the duty owed to the plaintiff, meaning the defendant has failed to act in compliance with the appropriate standard of care. In Massachusetts, a breach occurs when a defendant has failed to act as a reasonable person under the circumstances. Acting as a reasonable person is a varying concept, but generally, a judge will consider all the evidence and decide whether under the circumstances another person would or would not have acted similarly. The reasonable person standard makes no allowances for the defendant’s individual shortcomings; therefore, mental capacity is never considered, but physical attributes are.

For example, consider a defendant swimming at a public pool. The defendant notices some smaller children acting out in the adult portion of the pool. To stop this behavior, the defendant decides to jump in the pool, causing a big splash and making one of the children bang her head on the side of the pool. Under this set of facts, the judge would consider whether the defendant acted reasonably under the circumstances. However, it is important to understand that the defendant would only to be liable for negligence if the defendant owed a duty to the children.

To prove that the defendant is in breach of their duty of care, evidence may be offered to show things such as custom/usage or violation of applicable statutes. One can establish a breach of duty by providing evidence of custom or usage, by showing how people generally act in a similar situation. For example, if it is customary for a dentist for give Novocain to a patient before performing surgery, and failure to do so causes their patient extreme pain and agony, the dentist will be found to have breached his duty.

In Massachusetts, it may be shown that a defendant has breached his or her duty of care owed to the plaintiff by violating an applicable statute. Where there is evidence that indicates that the defendant’s violation of a statute resulted in the injuries to the plaintiff, a breach is established. For example, if there is a statute prohibiting drivers from crossing a double yellow line, and a defendant crosses the double yellow line causing an accident with the plaintiff in another vehicle and results in a serious injury, the defendant’s violation of the statute establishes a breach.

Lastly, Massachusetts will apply the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. This translates to “the thing speaks for itself” and is applied in situations where an injury would not have occurred without negligence. This doctrine requires that the defendant be in exclusive control of the object(s) that caused the injury. To establish that a breach of duty occurred under res ipsa loquitur, the Plaintiff must produce evidence that tends to infer that their injury is the type that would not normally occur unless someone was negligent--for example, a flower pot fell from a second story apartment as the defendant was watering it, hitting the plaintiff on the head.

If you have experienced an injury due to no fault of your own it and think you may have a claim against someone for negligence, speak with an experienced personal injury attorney. If you are seeking a competent personal injury law lawyer, please contact our offices by phone at 978-225-9030 during business hours or complete a contact form on our website. We will respond to your phone call or submission promptly.

The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.

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