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Borrowing Standards of Care: Violation of Statute as Negligence

No person shall drive a motor vehicle without a muffler or other suitable device to control excessive noise. West Dakota Ann. Laws Title V §212.

No person shall drive an unlighted vehicle upon any public highway during the period from one-half hour after sunset until one-half hour before sunrise. West Dakota Ann. Laws Title V §94A.

The driver of a vehicle on any public highway, traveling in any direction, shall stop before reaching any bus marked “school bus” and exhibiting flashing red lights. Said driver shall not proceed until the bus resumes motion or the lights are no longer flashing. West Dakota Ann. Laws Title V §74.

Many statutes establish standards of care in other areas as well:

No person shall enter upon or be employed upon the premises of an active construction site without wearing a construction helmet. West Dakota Ann. Laws Title IX §111.

No person shall leave a refrigerator, freezer, or similar appliance in any unsecured area accessible to children, whether for disposal or otherwise, without detaching the door from said appliance. West Dakota Ann. Laws Title XXIV §51.

Every owner or lessor of property used for rental purposes shall maintain every outside stair and porch in sound condition and good repair. West Dakota Ann. Laws Title XVII §19.

No person shall operate any mobile piece of heavy construction equipment unless said equipment is equipped with a beeper which sounds at all times while such equipment is operating in reverse. West Dakota Ann. Laws Title XXIII §123.

Statutes like these are intended to promote safety by establishing standards of conduct for particular situations. They are legislative commands which, if applicable, every citizen is bound to obey. Usually, such safety statutes impose a small criminal penalty for violations of the standard, but do not say anything about whether violation of the statutory standard establishes negligence in a civil action for damages. Not surprisingly, however, persons injured due to a violation of such a statute usually claim that the defendant was negligent for failing to comply with the statutory standard of care.

Suppose, for example, that Bourjailly drives past a stopped school bus with flashing lights and hits Hellman, a child alighting from the bus. If the school bus statute quoted above applies, Hellman will argue that Bourjailly should be found negligent because he violated the statute. Or suppose that Updike is injured by a falling object on a construction site, and sues the contractor. If the helmet statute quoted above applies, and if Updike was not wearing one, the defendant would argue that Updike’s violation of the statute proves, in and of itself, that he failed to live up to the standard of due care.

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