In the law, the standard of care is the course of action which a reasonable person would follow in a given situation. This standard is used when evaluating civil cases to determine whether or not someone with a duty of care acted responsibly. Anyone who engages in an activity which might put someone at risk, from driving a car to performing surgery, has a duty of care. People who do not follow the standard of care can be liable for injuries they cause.
The standard of care is not universal. Different people are held to different standards. Professionals such as doctors and lawyers, for example, are held to a standard of care which asks not what a reasonable person would do, but specifically what a reasonable doctor or lawyer would do. This recognizes that professionals have special qualifications and certifications and advertise themselves as uniquely qualified, and thus they should be held to a higher standard of care.
Questions about standards of care come up most commonly in questions of medical and legal malpractice. Someone suing a physician might bring forward witnesses to demonstrate that a physician failed to exercise reasonable prudence in a situation. Likewise, a lawyer who is being sued for malpractice would be compared against other lawyers, and what they might have done in a similar situation.
When evaluating cases of this nature, one consideration is that there may not be one right course of action for a given situation. A reasonable and qualified doctor, for example, might approach a medical issue in a number of different ways, all of which would be considered legitimate and appropriate. A reasonable doctor would not, however, engage in activity which might put a patient at risk of injury, such as failing to screen for infection in a patient with a fever, or not providing pain management to a patient after a surgery.
In medicine, the term "standard of care" is also used to refer to the generally accepted course of action for diagnosis and treatment. When a patient presents with what appears to be a broken arm, for example, the standard of care includes medical imaging studies to confirm a break and learn more about it. Administration of analgesia to make the patient comfortable would also be expected, as would an orthopedic procedure to set the limb and secure it in a cast for healing, followed with appointments to evaluate the progress of the healing.