You may have heard or read about the concept of the "reasonable person" when it comes to determining liability (or the absence of liability) in personal injury cases, and you may be wondering what's behind this mysterious legal doctrine. In this article we'll discuss why reasonableness is so crucial to many a personal injury claim, and then we’ll talk about 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 is the Basis of "Negligence"
...and negligence is the basis for proving liability in most personal injury cases.
Every state’s law defines negligence as the failure to exercise that degree of care which a reasonable person (or a reasonably prudent person) would exercise under the circumstances of the underlying accident or incident. (More: Common Kinds of Personal Injury Cases.) 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.
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 person 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 person 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).
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 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 person notices a potentially dangerous condition, he or she will take reasonable steps to remedy the situation the situation 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.