You may have heard or read that in most personal injury cases, the conduct of a "reasonable person" is used to assess whether or not there was negligence in connection with the underlying incident. And you may be wondering how this mysterious analysis works. In this article we'll discuss why reasonableness is so crucial to many a personal injury claim, who this "reasonable person" is, and how he or she might act in the context of a few common accident scenarios.
The "Reasonable Person" Standard and "Negligence"
Longstanding "common law" principles and (and the laws of most states) define negligence as the failure to exercise the degree of care that a "reasonable person" (or a "reasonably prudent person") would exercise under the circumstances of the underlying accident or incident. In other words, negligence can be (somewhat simplistically) defined as doing something that a reasonable person (or a reasonably prudent person) would not do, or failing to do something that a reasonable person would do. (Learn more about when you can be deemed negligent for not doing something.)
Basically, the "reasonable person" in negligence law is a hypothetical person who is reasonably prudent or careful based on the totality of circumstances in any conceivable situation. He or she exercises that degree of care, diligence, and forethought that should objectively be exercised under the particular circumstances.
What Would the Reasonable Person Do?
Let’s look at some examples to help us figure out what a reasonably prudent or careful person would do (or not do) in certain situations.
A reasonably prudent driver would stop at a stop sign. He or she would also stop (or at least slow to an almost-stop) at an unmarked intersection, regardless of whether a traffic law requires such an action, because failing to take such a precaution is unsafe based on the possibility that another vehicle might be coming. In other words, significantly reducing speed at an unmarked intersection is reasonably cautious behavior, and it's something a "reasonable person" would do in order to avoid a car accident.
A reasonably prudent dog owner would probably keep his or her dog on a leash at all times, regardless of whether the local county or town has a "leash law," because it is a proper precaution for preventing the animal from making aggressive -- or merely unwanted -- contact with another person (not to mention a reasonable precaution for preventing dog bites). Learn more about dog owner liability for bites and other injuries.
A reasonably prudent person wouldn't shout "fire" in a crowded theater, unless there actually was a fire. The reasonably prudent person would understand that shouting "fire" for no reason could cause a panic and result in possible injuries to theatergoers. Conversely, the reasonably prudent person would shout fire if there were indications of one, since warning fellow theatergoers is a proper demonstration of concern for their well-being.
A reasonably prudent property owner would regularly inspect his or her property to make sure there aren't any dangerous conditions that could cause visitors to the property to slip and fall or otherwise become injured. And if the reasonably prudent property owner notices an issue that could give rise to a premises liability claim, he or she will take reasonable steps to remedy the problem within (you guessed it) a reasonable amount of time.
The "Reasonable" Person Is Not the "Perfect" Person
So, in looking at the above examples, it's clear that the "reasonable person" acts sensibly and with appropriate caution under all possible circumstances. But keep in mind that the "reasonable person" doesn’t have to be perfect. In any kind of personal injury case, the defendant will only be found negligent if he or she failed to act in line with the "reasonable person" standard. The defendant won't be expected to demonstrate the utmost level of concern for the plaintiff's safety and exercise every possible precaution at all times. Some accidents are unavoidable, or so convoluted that it can be impossible to sort out who did what in the critical moments, let alone figure out who should have done what. Learn more about proving negligence in a personal injury case.