In civil tort law, duty of care refers to the universal legal obligation to avoid causing harm to another person, especially through negligence. A duty of care will only arise where it is reasonably foreseeable that one’s act or omission might cause harm. This constitutes a ‘relationship’ or ‘proximity’ between the two parties. The presence of a duty of care must be established to prove the tort of negligence. A person who breaches a duty of care owed to another will be liable to pay damages if the other person is injured as a result of the breach.
The test of reasonably foreseeability is derived from the famous case of Donoghue v Stevenson, which established the modern requirements for duty of care in UK and Australian law. The judgment by Lord Atkin stipulated that “you must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your number”, and further defined a legal neighbour as “persons who are closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question”.
There are also some common categories of legal relationships where a duty of care is automatically owed, including a commercial/contractual relationship, a special (i.e. parent-child) relationship, and a relationship created by an undertaking to act.