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The Duty to Prevent Harm

In California, the law does not impose a general duty on people to take specific or affirmative actions to help or protect others, even when they see another person in danger. However, this rule is subject to many exceptions–so many that, in places, they seem to almost overwhelm the rule. California and Federal laws impose a variety of duties on businesses, entities, and individuals–including (but not limited to) the duty to behave in a reasonable manner and to refrain from negligent conduct.

Here are a few more situations where people have a legal duty to act in order to prevent other people from suffering harm:

1. Where a statute (a law) or a regulation imposes an affirmative duty to act. (For example, Vehicle Code Section 20001 requires motorists to stop and help injured people following an accident, regardless of who was at fault or who caused the damage or injury.)

2. Where a “special relationship” exists under the law. In some cases, the special relationship requires people or entities in the relationship to act in a certain way. In other cases, the special relationship requires parties to the relationship to act in a certain way toward people outside the relationship (e.g., unsuspecting members of the public who might be harmed by one of the parties to the relationship).

3. Adults owe a duty of care to children. In some cases, adults have a duty of care to children, particularly where the child in question was unable to understand the risks involved in the relevant situation (either due to the child’s age or due to the child’s mental condition).

4. Where the defendant caused the danger. In many cases, a person who creates a dangerous situation has a duty to warn other people about (and, sometimes, act to prevent) potential harm or hazards resulting from the situation (s)he created.

5. Certain business owners, like innkeepers and “Common Carriers.” The law imposes special duties on certain business owners, and additional duties on certain types of businesses.

6. Landlords. People who rent or lease their property to others have special duties under the law, which often include safety-related duties and other obligations.

7. Caregivers. Caregivers have special duties, including (but not limited to) the duty to act to prevent a patient from causing harm to himself/herself (and, generally, also to prevent a patient from harming others).

This is not a complete or exhaustive list of the situations in which a person may have a duty to act to prevent injury or property damage. The examples above are given as exemplars. Additional duties exist, and additional situations exist when people have an affirmative obligation to act to protect or prevent harming others. Before you engage in conduct that might create a risk of harm, consult an attorney to ensure you understand and comply with any applicable legal duties.


Disclaimer: THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY, AND DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE OR CREATE AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE AUTHOR AND ANY PERSON. Your rights and experiences may vary. Never use an online article (including this one) to evaluate your legal claims. Speak with an experienced lawyer promptly to obtain a personalized evaluation of your claims, possible damages, and options. You may lose or compromise your rights if you delay in consulting legal counsel. Negligence claims are complicated and fact-dependent. If you believe you have a claim against someone who injured you, a lawyer who represented you in a previous lawsuit, or any other type of legal claim, consult an experienced lawyer immediately for an evaluation of your personal rights and claims.

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