Standard of care: nail negligence issues on torts exams

I have kids.  (Hold on – I’ll get to the standard of care soon.)

My kids, like all kids, are sometimes clumsy and have accidents.

They trip and fall . . . over their own feet.  Ormine.  Or my wife’s.  (Each other’s feet is more on-purpose tripping, natch.)

I like to think of myself as an enlightened father — super cool, like Phil Dunphy from Modern Family!

But self-awareness is hard.  I am less than cool when they trip.  I find myself shouting useless things like “Don’t fall!’ when they fall or “Don’t drop shit!” when they drop shit.

What students get wrong about the standard of care

What does my shitty parenting have to do with the standard of care (or the duty of care as it is also known)?

I’ve noticed in grading practice law school exams that many students take the “don’t drop shit!” approach with negligence issues on torts exams.

That is, the way you spot a negligence issue is noticing some kind of harm (someone falls or drops shit.)

So what students do is they march through the elements of negligence.

They formulate a standard of care (the basis of the duty that the defendant owes the plaintiff) by reverse-engineering the harm.

But most students do this too simply.

They borrow from my Cool Dad Playbook and write “The standard of care is NOT doing [the injury from the fact pattern.”

For instance:

  • Don’t [accidentally crash into my car]!
  • Don’t [drop shit on my head!]
  • Don’t [leave toxic waste in my swimming pool for my guests to choke on]!

The right way to do the standard of care

There is a different, better way to deal with the standard of care.

In short three tips will help you both find the standard of care and get it right on an exam.  In short:

  • Find harm: identify the specific action that caused the harm.
  • Get 1-2 levels more abstract:  Draft a standard of care by identifying what the defendant should have done in language that is 1 or 2 levels more general or abstract than the specific action that caused the harm.
  • Be affirmative: formulate a standard that is in the affirmative (i.e., says what the defendant should have done or how he should behave), not negative (i.e., “Don’t do what you just did!”)

Watch this video for a deeper dive on these three tips on the standard of care: