What is Professional Negligence?

What is Professional Negligence?

Written by Ryan Nevin


Professional negligence refers to a breach of duty by a professional that results in harm or loss to a client or patient. This legal concept is pivotal because professionals — such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, and engineers — are expected to perform their duties with a certain standard of care and expertise. When they fail to meet these standards, it can lead to significant consequences for those who rely on their services.

The significance of professional negligence lies in its impact on trust and accountability within professional fields. It ensures that professionals maintain high standards of practice, which is crucial for public confidence in essential services. Moreover, addressing professional negligence through legal mechanisms protects clients and patients from substandard professional conduct, thereby promoting justice and professional integrity. There are also ways of mitigating the risks presented by professional negligence, in the form of professional indemnity (PI) insurance. 

Key terms

Duty of Care - The term "duty of care" refers to a legal obligation imposed on individuals and entities to adhere to a standard of reasonable care while performing any acts that could foreseeably harm others. This concept is fundamental in tort law, particularly in cases of negligence. In the context of professional negligence, the duty of care requires professionals to exercise the same level of skill, knowledge, and caution that a reasonably competent professional in the same field would under similar circumstances. This means that professionals must act in the best interests of their clients or patients, ensuring that their actions or omissions do not cause harm.

Breach of Duty - A "breach of duty" occurs when an individual or entity fails to meet the standard of care that is legally required in each situation. This concept is a key element in establishing negligence in both general and professional contexts. In professional negligence cases, a breach of duty happens when a professional does not perform their responsibilities with the level of skill, competence, and diligence that a reasonably prudent professional in the same field would demonstrate under similar circumstances. This failure can occur through actions that are improper or through omissions that fall short of the expected standards.

Causation - "Causation" refers to the requirement to establish a direct link between one party's breach of duty and the harm or damage suffered by another party. In the context of professional negligence, causation involves demonstrating that the professional's failure to meet the standard of care directly caused the client's or patient's injury or loss. Establishing causation is crucial because it directly links the professional's breach of duty to the client's or patient's damages, forming a necessary element for a successful negligence claim. Without proving causation, even if a breach of duty is evident, a professional cannot be held liable for the resulting harm.

Damages - "Damages" refer to the compensation awarded to a plaintiff who has suffered harm due to the actions or omissions of another party—in this case, due to professional negligence. The purpose of awarding damages is to restore the injured party to the position they would have been in had the negligence not occurred. Various types of damages can result from professional negligence, including compensatory damages, punitive damages, nominal damages and consequential damages.

Examples of professional negiligence


A patient underwent a routine surgical procedure to remove their appendix. During the surgery, the surgeon accidentally left a surgical sponge inside the patient’s abdominal cavity. Post-surgery, the patient began experiencing severe pain, fever, and infection. Despite multiple follow-up visits, the surgeon failed to identify the cause of the patient's symptoms and dismissed them as normal post-operative discomfort.

After several months of persistent pain and deteriorating health, the patient sought a second opinion. The new doctor ordered a series of diagnostic tests, including an abdominal X-ray, which revealed the presence of the retained surgical sponge. The patient required an additional surgery to remove the sponge and treat the resulting infection, which had caused significant damage to internal organs.

The elements of negligence are clear to see. The surgeon has a duty of care to perform the surgery with an expected level of skill and diligence. He breaches his duty by failing to account for all surgical instruments. The causation is clear, since the sponge is responsible for the pain and infection of the patient. The damages can also be identified due to the patient’s potential inability to work, causing a loss of income, as well as any physical and emotional impacts.


A client hired a lawyer to represent them in a civil case involving a breach of contract. The case had a strict filing deadline, which the lawyer was aware of. However, the lawyer failed to file the necessary documents by the court-imposed deadline due to oversight and poor time management.

As a result, the court dismissed the client’s case on procedural grounds, preventing the client from pursuing their legal claim. The breach of contract had caused the client significant financial losses, which they were now unable to recover through the lawsuit.

In terms of negligence, we can see the lawyer had a duty of care to their client to act competently, including meeting filing deadlines. They have breached their duty by failing to submit the necessary documents on time. This directly caused the client’s case to be thrown out. The client then suffers financial damages because of not being able to pursue their claim.


A developer hired an engineering firm to design the structural framework for a new commercial building. The project had strict safety standards and codes that needed to be adhered to. However, the lead engineer failed to properly calculate the load-bearing capacity of certain key structural elements due to inadequate review and oversight.

As a result, shortly after the building was completed and occupied, structural issues began to emerge. Cracks appeared in the walls, and there were signs of significant foundation settlement. An investigation revealed that the design flaws had compromised the building’s structural integrity, making it unsafe for occupancy. The building had to be evacuated, and extensive repairs were required to correct the structural deficiencies, resulting in significant financial losses for the developer and disruption for the tenants.

The engineering firm and its lead engineer had a duty of care to design the building in accordance with all relevant safety standards and building codes. The lead engineer breached this duty by failing to accurately calculate the load-bearing capacities and properly review the design. The flawed design directly led to the structural issues and the building’s compromised integrity. The developer incurred substantial financial losses due to the evacuation, repairs, and potential loss of rental income, while tenants faced significant inconvenience and potential business losses.

How to mitigate these risks

Professional indemnity insurance (PI), also known as professional liability insurance, is a type of coverage designed to protect professionals against claims of negligence or malpractice.

Protection against financial loss - Professional indemnity insurance provides financial protection for professionals who face legal claims due to alleged negligence. If a client or patient suffers harm or financial loss due to a professional's failure to meet the required standard of care, the professional indemnity insurance policy can cover the costs associated with defending against the claim, as well as any settlements or judgments.

Legal expense cover - Legal defence can be costly, even if the negligence claim is unfounded. Professional indemnity insurance covers legal fees, court costs, and other related expenses, ensuring that professionals can afford a robust defence without depleting their personal or business resources.

Compensation for damages - In the event that a professional is found liable for negligence, the insurance policy will typically cover the compensation awarded to the claimant. This can include economic damages, non-economic damages, and consequential damages arising from the professional's negligent actions or omissions.

Compliance with regulation - Many professional bodies and regulatory agencies require professionals to carry indemnity insurance as a condition of practicing. This ensures that there is a financial safety net in place to protect clients and patients from the consequences of professional negligence.

Maintaining high professional standards is paramount to avoiding negligence. Professionals must commit to ongoing education, rigorous adherence to best practices, and a proactive approach to identifying and mitigating risks. By upholding these standards, professionals can protect their clients, maintain public trust, and ensure the integrity of their professions. Ultimately, the pursuit of excellence and accountability in professional practice not only safeguards individuals but also strengthens the overall fabric of society.


About the author

Ryan Nevin is an Account Broker at Get Indemnity™ - he is an ambitious professional who is currently studying towards being a Chartered Insurance Broker.