What follows is a guest post by Cara DeCataldo, a Reed Smith associate, who gamely stepped up to the plate to research one of a number of blogging topics that have been hanging fire for some time now. This topic is a type of “no good deed goes unpunished” liability – whether a defendant whose internal policies aspire to a degree of care that exceeds legal requirements can be sued solely because it allegedly failed to live up to those high aspirations. The two most common theories that purportedly support such a result are negligence per se and negligent undertaking. Thankfully, Cara’s research indicates that such liability is not recognized.
As always, our guest posters are entitled to all of the credit, and any blame, for their efforts.
Clearly articulated company policies imposing heightened safety standards on a company and its employees can’t be a bad thing, right? But what happens when a Plaintiff attempts to use a company’s alleged failure to comply with its own corporate aspirations as the basis for a lawsuit? There is an inherent tension between a company’s desire to set high standards for employee conduct and/or its products, and the fear of liability if those standards are not met. With this in mind, we thought it would be a worthwhile to take an in-depth look at whether internal company policies that exceed what the law requires, can also pose the risk of creating a legal duty.
For those companies seeking to hold employees and/or products to ambitious standards of care, the news is largely good. Most courts to address the issue support these endeavors and recognize the value of encouraging companies to maintain high voluntary standards. They also recognize the potential negative impact if those goals were misused to create legal duties to the public. Negligence per se claims consistently fail when citing various official pronouncements that encourage, but do not mandate, conduct, such as company credos, internal agency manuals, protocols, policy statements, and the like, as relevant evidence of the alleged negligence. Many states take matters a step further and bar the admission of company policies even as evidence of negligence. The most frequently applied rationale barring the admission of internal policies is that to the extent internal rules and regulations exceed the standard of care, then they are not admissible.