How to Establish a Duty in a Negligence Case

In Minnesota, when someone is found to be negligent it means that they were not acting reasonably. The standard is what a reasonable person would have done in a similar situation.

To prove a negligence claim, a plaintiff must prove:

  • Duty (the other person owed a duty of care),
  • Breach of that duty (the other party failed to meet that duty),
  • Causation (the other party’s failure—and not something else—caused the plaintiff’ s injury), and
  • Damages (the plaintiff was actually injured and suffered some loss).

Establishing a Duty

Generally, a person has no duty to act for the protection of another person, even if he or she realizes or should realize that action on their part is necessary. The existence of a legal duty depends on the relationship of the parties and the foreseeability of the risk involved. The existence of a legal duty to protect another person generally presents an issue for a court to decide as a matter of law. Donaldson v. YWCA, 539 N.W.2d 789, 792 (Minn. 1995).  As a result, many defendants bring summary judgment motions to allow the just to decide whether the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff.

A legal duty to act for the protection of another person arises when a special relationship exists between the parties. For the most part, a special relationship giving rise to a duty to protect is found only on the part of common carriers, innkeepers, possessors of land who hold it open to the public, and persons who have custody of another person under circumstances in which that person is deprived of normal opportunities of self-protection. Harper v. Herman, 499 N.W.2d 472, 474 (Minn. 1993). To reach the conclusion that a special relationship is present, one must assume that the harm to be prevented by a defendant is a harm that the defendant is in a position to protect against and should be expected to protect against. Donaldson, 539 N.W.2d at 792.

Common Carrier and Innkeeper

As stated, a duty to protect may be found in the innkeeper-guest and common carrier-passenger relationship. Analogous to the innkeeper-guest case is the hospital-patient relationship. In contrast, a private homeowner is not expected to provide protection to an in-home nurse companion.

In Erickson v. Curtis Inv. Co., 447 N.W.2d 165 (Minn. 1989), the Minnesota Supreme Court had to decide whether a duty is owed by the owner of a commercial parking ramp to its patrons. It ruled that at least some duty is owed and it was explained to the jury as follows: “the operator or owner of a parking ramp facility has a duty to use reasonable care to deter criminal activity on its premises which may cause personal harm to customers. The care to be provided is that care which a reasonably prudent operator or owner would provide under like circumstances.”

Possessors of Land

While a landowner generally has a continuing duty to use reasonable care for the safety of all entrants, this duty is not absolute.  The Minnesota Supreme Court has adopted the rule set out in Restatement (Second) of Torts § 343A (1965), which reads:

“A possessor of land is not liable to his invitee for physical harm caused to them by any activity or condition on the land whose danger is known or obvious to them, unless the possessor should anticipate the harm despite such knowledge or obviousness.”

The reasoning behind this rule is that, for the most part,  “no one needs notice of what he knows or reasonably may be expected to know.”

Custody of Another

This special relationship arises when an individual assumes responsibility for a duty that is owed by another individual to a third party. For example, one has a duty to act when he “undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of a third person or his things,” and liability will be imposed if (1) his failure to act increases the risk of harm; (2) he undertook a duty owed by the other to the third party; or (3) the harm is suffered because the other or the third person relied on the undertaking. Bjerke v. Johnson, 742 N.W.2d 660 (Minn. 2007).


While the word “duty” can have many interpretations outside a legal context, as stated above, there are actually only a few ways under Minnesota law where someone has a legal duty protect another from harm.

This article was written by attorney Maureen A. Carlson.

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