Almost all business professionals – whether a professional is a physician, architect, engineer, broker, real estate agent or CPA – are exposed to potential legal liability for failing to meet the standard of care. When professionals are accused of negligence, some of the first questions a legal defense team will ask are:
- What is the applicable standard of care, and
- Was it met?
In the course of litigation, the applicable standard of care may vary widely between the professional’s perception and a client’s expectations.
The “standard of care” is a legal term of art. In general, the standard of care can best be summarized as the action or inaction a reasonable, professional person with similar training would take in a similar situation under similar conditions. There is no technical definition of a “reasonable person,” but this person exercises the care, diligence and skill expected of an individual with comparable knowledge and training.
The specific standard of care will vary by profession. For example, for North Carolina health care providers, a plaintiff must show that the care was not in accordance with standard of practice among health care providers in the same health care profession with similar training or experience in the same or similar community at the time of the alleged conduct. For architects or engineers, the standard of care requires exercise of the degree of care which a professional of ordinary skill and prudence would exercise under the same or similar circumstances. The common thread between these standards of care and others is that a professional is held to the same practice standards as other professionals in that same field under the same conditions or circumstances.
Note well: a standard of care does not require to perfection. The standard of care requires only reasonableness. And only a qualified expert can testify as to whether a professional’s conduct meets or fails to meet the standard of care. In many cases, an unsophisticated jury will ultimately decide whether that standard was met. The jurors will usually rely on expert witnesses to decide whether the standard of care was met.
One way to minimize professional liability exposure includes clearly documenting communications with clients and informing parties about what to expect from products or services. To ensure that clients have realistic expectations of the services to be rendered, some professionals even include the applicable standard of care in client contracts. A professional liability insurance policy helps provide coverage for exposure and the expenses of litigation.
John D. Martin is a trial lawyer and the managing partner of the Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog LLP’s Wilmington, North Carolina office. Martin concentrates his practice in the medical malpractice and professional liability defense practice groups. He has tried numerous medical malpractice and personal injury cases throughout eastern North Carolina. Many of his cases involve brain injury, birth trauma, paraplegia and wrongful death. Additionally, Martin has experience with large construction litigation, premises liability and hospital/workplace security. To contact Martin, call (910) 777-6018 or email him at [email protected].