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What Is Legal Duty and Why Is It Important

Guy DiMartino Oct. 31, 2014

Indiana medical malpractice and personal injury lawyer discusses the concept of legal duty and how it plays out in medical malpractice and personal injury cases.

In order to hold somebody responsible for medical malpractice or any other type of negligence there has to be a legal duty between the parties. Black's Law Dictionary defines legal duty as:

An obligation arising from contract of the parties or the operation of the law. That which the law requires to be done or forborne to a determinate person or the public at large, correlative to a vested and coextensive right in such person or the public, and the breach of which constitutes negligence.

What does all this legalese mean? A legal duty depends on the relationship between the parties. Duty can be clear cut as in a car accident. If we drive our car on the road we have a duty to the other people on the road to act as a reasonable person. The concept of legal duty can become very complicated as discussed in the recent case of Jeffrey v. Okolocha.

The Facts

The facts in the case are very sad. A NY couple adopts a new born baby that they thought was health from Northwest Indiana. An ultrasound of the baby before birth showed that the baby had a brain abnormality. Before the adoption, the adopted parents attempted to get the prenatal medical records from the doctor and post-birth records from the hospital. The parents received the hospital records which showed no post-birth problems but they did not receive the doctor's records showing the ultrasound. The adoption went forward and the parents learned the child had significant problems. The adopted parents sued the doctor and the doctor moved to kick the case out of court because the parents did not supply a proper medical release when they requested the records.

Trial Court Ruling

Lake Superior Court Number 5, which is located in Hammond, Indiana, granted the doctor's motion finding that the parents did not submit a proper medical release.

Court of Appeals

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling holding that the doctor did not owe the adoptive parents a duty. The court reasoned that because the adoptive parents did not supply a valid medical release there was no duty between the parties. Remember Black's definition, a duty is an obligation arising from contract or by operation of law, which was not present in the facts of this case.


Whether a potential defendant owes a duty of care to an injured party can be a complex analysis and requires an attorney well versed in the specific area of law. If you have any questions regarding an Indiana medical malpractice or personal injury case, call our Michigan City personal injury lawyers or fill out the internet consultation box on the right.