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Whether a person is under a duty to make any effort to control the conduct of another to avoid harm to a third person presents a problem in the law of Torts which is generally treated as one of affirmative obligation. The distinction between misfeasance and mere non-feasance is an old one and, while the line is recognized as shadowy in places, it still affords a practical basis for analysis. Whether given conduct is to be described as the improper performance of proper acts or a failure to perform acts which should have been performed is the orthodox touch-stone for deciding many tort cases. To be sure, this formula is capable of manipulation, and any given set of facts can be compressed to come within the concept of non-feasance or expanded to fit the mould of misfeasance. The trick is a simple one of selecting that point in the series of happenings from which the analysis is to start. An accident at a level crossing, for example, may be logically regarded as the result of the mere failure of the engineer to sound a warning or make timely application of his brakes; on the other hand, it can be regarded as the improper operation of the locomotive. In the former description, the logic is the one of non-feasance; the latter is that of misfeasance. Actually, the formula is superficial and inexact. The basic principles, however, for determining duty are the same in all cases. A sounder basis for analysis is the relationship of the parties. If the conduct of the actor has brought him into a human relationship with another, of such character that sound social policy requires either some affirmative action or precautions in action on his part to avoid harm, the duty to act or take the precautions is imposed by the law. "Given a relation," says Justice Cardozo with characteristic insight, "involving in its existence a duty of care . . ., a tort may result as well from acts of omission as of commission in the fulfillment of duty thus required by law. What we need to know is not so much the conduct to be avoided when the relation and its attendant duty are established as existing. What we need to know is the conduct that engenders the relation. It is here that the formula, however incomplete, has its value and significance."
Date of Authorship for this Version
The Duty to Control the Conduct of Another (with P. M. Kime), 9 Indiana Law Journal 498 (1934)