The Reasonable Person Standard and How It Affects Your Lawsuit

If you’re dealing with a negligence case, you may hear of the reasonable person standard. Learn how it applies to different situations.

Negligence is the one of the most common personal injury tort claims. A negligence lawsuit maintains that the person who hurt you didn’t do so intentionally. Rather, the person acted carelessly.

There are many legal and factual spins that can affect your case. But one key question always remains. How does the law decide if someone was careless?

The answer seems simple. If the defendant acted like a reasonable person, then they were not negligent. The idea of an average person serving as the objective standard by which we measure all negligent behavior sounds both simple and appealing. In personal injury lawsuits, though, it is one of the most hotly contested topics.

Who determines what is reasonable? Does the average reasonable person standard ever change? What if the person being sued is a retail clerk? A well-trained surgeon? How would a jury know whether a doctor’s decision, based in years of knowledge and practice, was careless or not?

This article will examine the reasonable person standard. We will look at the application of that legal standard of conduct across different types of cases. This should give you an idea of what to expect if you find yourself in a negligence case.

It’s important to know how the reasonable person standard works, whether you are the injured person (plaintiff) or the person being sued (defendant).

What Is the Reasonable Person Standard?

A diverse group of people smiling at the camera

Who gets to say what a reasonable person is?

The “reasonable person” (sometimes called the “ordinary person” or “reasonable man” in older cases) is a legal fiction. In other words, the standard does not refer to any actual person. Instead, the reasonable person is the idea of what the average adult would do in similar circumstances.

In this way, it presents an objective test of the reasonableness of the defendant’s actions. For example, let’s say that the negligence claim at issue is a car crash.

The defendant was texting on their phone while driving towards an intersection. They failed to see the red light, and barreled into the intersection. As a result, their car struck the plaintiff and caused serious injuries.

The defendant’s conduct may not have been unusual. Many people have sent and received text messages on mobile phones while driving. The question before the jury, though, is whether texting while driving is reasonable.

Most cars weigh over 4,000 pounds and can travel very fast. They can kill people if operated by someone who is not paying full attention. It’s unlikely that a jury would think that texting and driving satisfies the reasonable person standard. The defendant would probably lose that case.

Negligence is not the only type of claim that considers what a reasonable person would have done. Some, like malicious prosecution, also consider the actions a reasonable person would have taken when deciding whether a defendant has committed misconduct. The analysis, though, is roughly the same in these cases.

Reasonable Person Standard in Malpractice Cases

Two surgeons performing an operation

Professional malpractice cases, like legal and medical malpractice, are special. They come about when a trusted professional makes an error in the performance of their job. If that error harms the client or patient, the professional may be found negligent.

Though the reasonable person standard does apply to these cases in a way, it must be modified. Health care professionals, lawyers, accountants and other professionals have specialized education and training. That alone holds them to a higher standard. It also puts their decisions outside the range of experience of the average person.

The term standard of care is used for these cases. It refers to what the reasonable or prudent professional would have done in a similar situation. For example, imagine a surgeon working on a trauma victim in an emergency room.

Let’s say a car crash victim dies because of internal bleeding. Imagine it happened before the surgeon had time to begin surgery. It might have been impossible for even the best surgeon, let alone a reasonable one, to save the patient’s life. Even though the patient died, there was no malpractice.

On the other hand, what if the surgeon had been drinking before the surgery? What if their impairment caused them to make mistakes? Then, they may be negligent. A reasonable surgeon would probably not be drinking intoxicating substances if they knew there was a good chance that they would be performing emergency surgery.

As you can see, the issues arising from the imposition of the reasonable person standard or a standard of care can be complicated. These issues also vary from case to case. Thus, the evidentiary support for allegations of negligence is extremely important.

How To Prove Negligence

A panel of jurors inside a courtroom

This discussion should make one thing clear. Whether a person violated the reasonable person standard is not a one-size-fits-all rule. Behavior that might have been negligent by a person in one given situation may be completely fine in another.

For example, reasonable people usually don’t violate traffic laws. But what happens if a car passenger suddenly comes down with an allergic reaction and begins suffocating? In that case, the driver may need to break the speed limit in order to get the passenger help before they die.

Whether or not a person’s actions were reasonable is a question of fact. That means the jury has to hear the evidence and decide whether or not the defendant’s acts were reasonable. So, how does the reasonable person standard help the jury in determining negligence? It does this by providing a legal framework to look at the facts.

The term “reasonable” can mean almost anything to anybody. By defining and narrowing the term with a legal definition, negligence law helps juries understand the facts and apply consistent results, even in very different situations. While it’s not a perfect system, it’s the one we have. You have to understand this system and how to use it in order to have a hope of winning.

One other thing: If you are filing a professional malpractice case, you have a greater burden to show that the standard or care was violated. In a majority of United States jurisdictions, even filing a medical malpractice complaint requires an affidavit from a third-party doctor stating that the personal injury case has merit.

Even assuming you can get past that hurdle, professional negligence cases are nearly impossible to win without expert testimony showing that the defendant violated the standard of care.

It’s important to discuss the potential requirements of your negligence claim with one or more personal injury lawyers prior to filing so you understand the costs and requirements of a successful claim.

Collect Your Facts and Prepare for Court

Whether against a lay person or a professional, negligence claims are stressful and need a lot of factual analysis. The reasonable person standard represents one of the large factual issues. It’s not the only one, though. You need to gather your facts before marching into the courthouse to file your lawsuit.

A good injury attorney can help you look at the evidence and decide what the best path is for you. If you or a loved one has been negligently injured, seek out qualified personal injury attorneys in your state for a free consultation and case evaluation.

Matthew Carter, Esq. has been a licensed attorney since 2004. He’s admitted to practice law in California and Nevada, where he was awarded the Martindale.com rating of AV – Preeminent. Matthew has successfully handled a variety of personal injury and wrongful death cases, as well as trials, appeals, and evidentiary hearings throughout state and federal... Read More >>

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