DEFINITION of 'Omission'

Omission is a failure to act that causes harm. Omission (to act) or failure to do so is only criminal in three situations:

  • When there is a statute that creates a legal duty to act;
  • When there is a contract that creates a legal duty to act;
  • When there is a special relationship between the parties that creates a legal duty to act.

Prosecution for a failure to act is relatively rare, since individuals cannot be compelled to put themselves in harm’s way and in a situation where there are multiple bystanders, it becomes impossible to assign blame for inaction to a specific person. However, omission to act becomes a crime if three elements can be established – that there was a duty of care, that this duty was breached, and that there is a direct connection between the breach of duty and the harm suffered. A breach of duty would not occur if the conduct was justified or if the duty was impossible.


Examples of a statutory duty to act are the duty of social workers to report child abuse, or the duty of health-care staff to report gunshot wounds. In many U.S. states, “Good Samaritan” statutes create a duty to help those involved in an accident or emergency. While these statutes generally contain provisions that shield a person from liability when providing assistance, a landmark case in California illustrated the limits of such liability protection.

That case resulted from an accident in the Los Angeles area in October 2004, when a woman pulled her injured friend from a wrecked car. However, the rescuer was sued by the friend on the grounds that she had pulled her roughly – “like a rag doll” – from the car, contributing to spinal injuries that left her permanently paralyzed. California’s Good Samaritan law stated then that “no person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for any civil damages resulting from any act or omission.” However, two California courts interpreted “emergency care” as “medical care,” which can only be provided by trained medical personnel who are legally protected. The statute has since been revised to cover emergency medical or nonmedical care at the scene of an emergency.

Examples of a Contractual Duty to Act

A physician’s duty to help a patient is an example of a contractual duty to act. A leading case on this duty is R v Pittwood (1902). In this case, a railway crossing gate-keeper lifted the gate to allow a cart to pass but then failed to put the gate down when he left for lunch. Subsequently, a train collided with a horse and cart killing the train driver. The gate-keeper was convicted of manslaughter as it was his contractual duty to close the gate.

Special relationships such as that between parent-child, or between spouses, also form the basis of a legal duty to act, especially when one individual depends on the other. Thus, a parent is obligated by law to provide food, shelter, and medical care to his or her child, since the child is wholly dependent on the parents for the basic necessities of life.

  1. Stamp Duty

    A stamp duty is the tax placed on legal documents, usually in ...
  2. Statutory Liability

    Statutory liability is a legal term for someone being held responsible ...
  3. Nonfeasance

    Nonfeasance is failing to execute or perform an act or duty required ...
  4. Anti-Dumping Duty

    Anti-dumping duty is a protectionist tariff that a domestic government ...
  5. Statute Of Limitations

    A statute of limitations is a law which sets the maximum time ...
  6. Qualified Reservist

    A qualified reservist is a member of the military reserve who ...
Related Articles
  1. Taxes

    Tax Variations Of The HEART Act

    The HEART Act is designed to allow service members and reservists make a smooth financial transition into active duty and back into civilian life.
  2. Personal Finance

    Tax Issues Transitioning Service Members Should Know

    Transitioning military personnel and their families face significant impacts to their tax situation. Here are nine things to consider.
  3. Personal Finance

    10 Careers With Great Job Prospects

    The unemployment rate may be high, but that doesn't mean you need to sit on the sidelines. Find out which fields have the most potential.
  4. Financial Advisor

    Protecting Finances When a Child Makes a Mistake

    Here is how you can best protect your child, yourself and your finances when an emergency occurs.
  5. Personal Finance

    What Is a Fiduciary and Why Does It Matter?

    Not all financial advisers have your best interests at heart. Here's why fiduciary duty is key to building a mutually beneficial adviser-client relationship.
  6. Financial Advisor

    Preparing Finances For Deployment: A Guide For Service Members

    Those who follow the instruction in this article can look forward to a homecoming of financial prosperity.
  7. Personal Finance

    The Purpose Of a FMLA Form

    Parsing the different types of paperwork that accompany a leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act.
  8. Investing

    Playing The Growth In Natural Gas Powered Vehicles

    Natural gas vehicles are taking off in a big way. Fleet sales and heavy duty truck demand is growing and analysts predict big things in the future. For investors, betting on the trend could mean ...
  9. Small Business

    6 Ways To Learn To Love Your Job

    If you can't quit, these tips will help you make the most of your work situation.
  10. Managing Wealth

    Controller: Job Description & Average Salary

    Learn about becoming a controller and what the job entails. Understand the education and skills required, and how much money you can expect to make.
  1. Do I still owe debt collectors for a debt that's past the statute of limitations ...

    Learn more about the statutes of limitations that govern certain personal debts and why you maintain obligations as a debtor ... Read Answer >>
  2. What is a gatekeeper?

    There are two definitions of the term "gatekeeper," one used in relation to health insurance and the other one is in regarding ... Read Answer >>
Hot Definitions
  1. Financial Risk

    Financial risk is the possibility that shareholders will lose money when investing in a company if its cash flow fails to ...
  2. Enterprise Value (EV)

    Enterprise Value (EV) is a measure of a company's total value, often used as a more comprehensive alternative to equity market ...
  3. Relative Strength Index - RSI

    Relative Strength Indicator (RSI) is a technical momentum indicator that compares the magnitude of recent gains to recent ...
  4. Dividend

    A dividend is a distribution of a portion of a company's earnings, decided by the board of directors, to a class of its shareholders.
  5. Inventory Turnover

    Inventory turnover is a ratio showing how many times a company has sold and replaces inventory over a period.
  6. Watchlist

    A watchlist is list of securities being monitored for potential trading or investing opportunities.
Trading Center