In society, everyone has a duty of care to behave in the same way that a “reasonable” person would in similar circumstances. This assumption is well-tested in legal circles and is known by a specific name, but what is the reasonable person standard?
Introducing the Reasonable Person Standard
If you are ever involved in a personal injury case, you may well come across references to this notional “reasonable person” and the assumption of reasonable care. It’s a legal standard used to evaluate how people behave in a given situation whenever they are involved in an accident.
It’s important to understand these definitions so that you can prepare your case accordingly if you need to defend a certain position or allege actions. These legal definitions will become an important part of the case and may actually determine its outcome.
In any personal injury claim, a reasonable person must have behaved in the way that a notional “reasonable” person would have done in the same situation. In other words, they would not have acted in any other way, as a reasonable person could not have been expected to anticipate the way that events unfolded. So, if the person does not behave reasonably, that action may be deemed negligent. If they pass the reasonable person standard test, negligence is not considered.
A charge of negligence has potential repercussions, and the person could be found legally liable if the consequence of the negligence turned out to be an accident. Still, the person has to be able to be reasonable. For example, a young child may not be held to the same standards as a mature adult in this situation as they may not have understood the outcome of their behavior due to their relative immaturity.
Assessing the Circumstances
Still, the reasonable person’s standard is always affected by the circumstances. In other words, the standard may need to be modified before a competent authority can judge the person in question was negligent or not. After all, the standard itself refers to notional or even fictitious behavior, and it’s crucial to fully evaluate all the circumstances before adjudication can be made.
Understanding the Implications
All of those who make such decisions need to understand the gravity of the process. If someone is judged to have acted negligently, and that negligence resulted in a car crash or similar incident, the consequences could be significant. They may be forced to pay compensation to victims for damage, expenditure, medical bills, pain and suffering, and other losses. In society today, these financial payouts can be sizable.
Comparing Objectivity and Subjectivity
This leads to the difference between objectivity and subjectivity. The reasonable person standard is objective and provides an understandable and uniform standard to juries, judges, or those who have to make a decision. This objective standard has to be applied to the actions of a particular party in the case. They need to decide whether the person behaved in a manner that would be similar (or better) to an objective, reasonable person in the same scenario.
Looking at an Example
How could this standard be applied in a range of car crash scenarios? For example, if a driver were to run a red light and this caused an accident, the jury would consider them negligent as no reasonable person would drive through a red light. They would find this person liable for any harm or damage they had caused and adjudicate accordingly. However, if a sudden mechanical failure meant that the driver of said car was unable to control the vehicle and could not stop at the red light, there’s a big difference. No reasonable person could have anticipated that mechanical failure, and thus, it was outside of the driver’s control. Although the driver may have done whatever they could to try and avoid the incident, they would simply have been a passenger in the situation, and the accident was unavoidable. A jury in this situation may find that the driver was reasonable, not negligent, and therefore not responsible.
In this example, every driver owes a duty of care to other parties whenever they are behind the wheel. They must obey traffic laws and operate their car safely. This is the reasonable person standard, but the outcome of each case will depend on the circumstances.
Researching the Origins of the Reasonable Person Standard
The reasonable person standard has been entrenched in legal circles for decades. In fact, it’s thought that the first case originated in 1837 and is known as “Vaughn v. Menlove.” Here, the defendant was charged with placing a stack of hay next to a cottage owned by the plaintiff. The defendant was told that the hay could ignite and cause damage to the cottage, but they went forward with their actions in any case. The hay did catch fire and burned the plaintiff’s cottage, leading to a case in court.
In the trial, the jury was told to consider whether the fire was caused by gross negligence. They were told that the defendant should have acted as a reasonable man would have in the circumstances. Once the jury had deliberated, they found in favor of the plaintiff. However, in a twist, the defendant obtained a ruling on the basis that members of the jury were incorrectly instructed. They should have been told to find negligence only if the defendant did not act according to their best judgment. His appeal stated that he shouldn’t be held liable in this case as he was not intelligent enough to understand his actions. Nevertheless, the appeal was dismissed on the basis that it was too subjective. This led to the first instance of a reasonable person test being used in determining negligence.
There were further clarifications to the law in a separate case known as “McQuire v. Western Morning News,” often referred to as the “Man on the Clapham Omnibus.” This landmark case in Britain is frequently referred to in US judicial decisions such as Thompson Versus the United States, heard in the District Of Columbia Court of Appeals (1988).
In the Clapham Omnibus case, it was found that a reasonable person was not, in fact, a specific or literal passenger on that bus but was effectively fictitious. A defendant had brought forward witnesses traveling on that bus to defend their actions by saying they would have acted similarly. The defendant asserted that these were reasonable people, thus proving his case. However, the court clarified that the reasonable person standard is always to be considered objective rather than subjective. So, no real person can be called forward to be seen as an appropriate reasonable person whose actions should be followed in a given case.
Nevertheless, it is still possible to look at a person’s actions based on their level of competence. This is often the case where medical malpractice or negligence is claimed, as the actions of a skilled surgeon could be judged to a higher standard than the average man or woman. The average person would not have the experience, qualifications, or skills to perform medical work in the same way. Therefore, the surgeon would be held to a higher standard applicable to the profession and not with regard to their specific training or experience.
Defining the Word “Reasonable”
So, on the assumption that a person should always behave according to a reasonable standard, the next step is to define exactly what reasonable is in a given scenario. This may lead to limitations in the case of a jury case composed of very different individuals. Where is the cut-off line if a younger person may not be found liable as they did not have the same level of maturity as an older individual? In other words, what age can be deemed mature enough to be considered according to the standard reasonable person test? The jury may still be required to apply an objective reasonable person standard, but questions may nevertheless arise. This is where a skilled attorney comes into the picture and can often put forward arguments that could influence the mind of a juror.
Applying Real-World Scenarios
It’s not always easy to apply for the reasonable person test. It is supposed to be an objective standard. However, in the real world, every individual is different, with varying backgrounds, experiences, knowledge, and capacity. This is why it is not always easy to win a case involving the actions of a reasonable person in order to prove negligence. It’s why every case has to be adjudicated on its merits and why the input of a skilled attorney can often make a significant difference.
To determine if someone did or did not behave reasonably, the person asking the question has to have a thorough understanding of the law. Even small factors can make a difference, and an element of a case that someone might have dismissed or overlooked may be enough to sway the verdict for or against. A case that may be viewed as a “slam dunk” may not turn out to be as obvious when a skilled personal injury attorney puts forward a counterargument. The individual facts surrounding a case can certainly have a bearing.
Putting Forward a Fair and Reasonable Defense
Several factors need to be considered when looking at an individual case and trying to determine whether someone breached their duty to a third party. These may include whether an accident was possible given a certain course of action, how serious such an accident could be, whether taking a different course of action could result in adverse consequences, and if so, how likely it would be for those adverse consequences to materialize. These questions are often used to defend a position, but a jury must always consider whether these defenses are fair and reasonable. In other words, they cannot be so far-fetched as to be highly unlikely to materialize.
A reasonable person’s standard must be judged with a certain amount of flexibility to give the legal system the ability to respond based on context. This may require a judge to be a balancing power in order to arrive at the most palatable outcome.
Looking at Your Case
If you’ve been in a car accident, you know how traumatic and disruptive such an experience can be. You’ll want to assess your options and find out whether you can get compensation to help you deal with the consequences. You may be sure that another party was negligent and should be held accountable and will want to know how to put forward a case. In most situations, the defendant will turn to their insurance company, and these organizations are very well-versed in personal injury law. Remember, they are in the business of making money and will often want to minimize the amount of any settlement. They may often put up a robust response.
An insurance company may argue that their client acted as any sensible person would and definitely reached the reasonable person standard. They may bring forward certain evidence to help them with their case, and you may need to counter these arguments in order to reach a successful outcome.
Working with the Experts
It is crucial in a situation like this to work with an experienced personal injury lawyer. Bay Law is committed to guiding you through this maze in order to arrive at the best possible outcome for your case. A Bay Law personal injury lawyer will stand next to you in your fight against the insurance company to help you get the compensation that you rightfully deserve.
Don’t underestimate the work involved in a case like this. You need to focus on recovering from the accident while trusting the experts to deal with the insurance companies and the defendant, as necessary. If these parties try to aggressively limit their liability and potential cost associated with the accident, you will need an expert at your side to push forward. So, get in touch with Bay Law Personal Injury today to discuss your case.