The reasonable person standard works by comparing an allegedly negligent party’s conduct to what a hypothetical reasonable person would have done in the same or similar circumstances.
If a defendant fails to act like an objectively reasonable person would have, it can amount to a breach of his or her duty of care towards you as the victim and plaintiff.
What is a “reasonable person”?
A “reasonable person” is a fictitious person who always uses ordinary care under the circumstances.1 They are sometimes said to use “prudence” or “reasonable care.”
The reasonable person is not just any ordinary person. He or she is an adult that
- always uses common sense,
- avoids putting other people into risk of harm, and
- is always paying attention.
He or she
- never forgets things and
- is always aware of reasonably foreseeable harms or dangers in a given situation.
The reasonable person does not exist in real life. However, people who do not act like the reasonable person can be held liable for injuries that their poor conduct causes. When they do not act like a reasonable person, they behave unreasonably for the circumstances. This is evidence of negligence.2
Negligence can take the form of
- an action, or
- a failure to act.3
By hiring a lawyer from a personal injury law firm, you can show that the defendant’s negligence hurt you and that you deserve compensation.
Is it a subjective or an objective standard?
The reasonable person is an objective test or standard. It comes from the common law. A defendant cannot escape liability by arguing that he or she was personally unaware of the dangers of their conduct. If a reasonably prudent person would have been aware of them in a similar situation, then the defendant can be held liable.
For example: A farmer stacks hay right near his neighbor’s house. He is told repeatedly not to do so, as the weather is dry and the hay can catch fire. A week later, the hay accidentally ignites and burns down the neighbor’s house.4
However, the reasonable person matches the skills or expectations of the defendant for the particular situation. For example, this can matter when the negligent person was a:
- dog owner,
- blind person,
- person helping in an emergency, or
These people are compared to a reasonable person who is similar to them.
If you are injured by a dog, like in a dog bite case, the defendant is negligent if he or she did not act like a reasonable dog owner. This requires appropriate care for the dog and taking reasonable and effective steps to control the animal and prevent an attack.5
It would be unfair to expect blind people to behave like a typical person who could see. Therefore, people who cannot see are held to the standard of conduct of a reasonably prudent blind person. Some conduct that would be negligent for a seeing person to do would not be negligent for a blind person.
For example: Liam is blind. He is walking along the sidewalk while wearing his glasses and his white walking stick. He bumps into Beatrice and knocks her over.
However, some conduct that would not be negligent for a seeing person can violate the reasonably prudent blind person standard.
For example: Liam gets into a car and drives down the street.
The reasonable person standard only applies to adults. Children are held to a much more subjective standard of care to determine whether they were negligent.
Different jurisdictions handle negligence by children differently. Two common methods of assigning a standard of care to children are:
- the rule of sevens, and
- minors of a similar age, intelligence, and experience.
Most states use the subjective standard of a minor of the same
- intelligence, and
Under this standard, children are held to the standard of other children like themselves. However, an exception to this is if the minor was engaged in an adult activity, such as driving a car. In these cases, the minor can be judged by the standard of a reasonable adult.7
Under the rule of sevens, a child’s liability for his or her negligence depends on their age:
- children under 7 are incapable of negligence,
- children between 7 and 14 years old are presumptively incapable of negligence, though evidence can overcome this presumption, and
- children over 14 are presumptively capable of negligence, though evidence can be used to overcome it.8
Evidence regarding the presumption is based on the child’s age, capacity, intelligence, and experience.9
Even if children violate a statute in the course of hurting you, it will not necessarily lead to a ruling of negligence per se. This is unlike negligence cases involving adults. In car accident cases, for example, the violation of a traffic law is used as strong evidence of negligence.
A person acts differently in an emergency than in other moments. The stressful situation and the need for immediate action drastically increases the likelihood that the defendant’s conduct proves to be negligent, in the long run. To account for this, a person’s conduct in an emergency is held against the standard of a reasonable person acting in the context of an unforeseen emergency.10
Medical professionals, especially doctors and surgeons, are held to a higher standard of care when they are providing healthcare. Generally, they have to meet the standard of care of others in their profession or medical field. If they fail to do so, it can amount to medical malpractice.
This standard of care requires the use of
- knowledge, and
- care that is normally possessed by others in their profession.
The standard of care does not require average skill or performance.11 If that were the case, then half of the medical professionals would fall below the required standard of care.
The degree of specialty can further heighten the standard of care. Many states, like California, differentiate between healthcare professionals12 and medical specialists.13
How does the reasonable person standard fit into personal injury law?
If you have been hurt by someone else’s negligence, you have to show 4 things to recover compensation under your state’s tort law:
- the defendant owed you a legal duty of care,
- the defendant breached that duty of care,
- that breach caused your injuries, and
- you were, in fact, injured.
The standard of a reasonable person is a way of showing that there was a breach of a legal duty of care.
If the defendant had a legal duty of care to keep you out of harm’s way, they have to provide this degree of care. They can do this by behaving as a reasonable person would behave in the same circumstances. If they do not abide by this legal standard, they can be held liable in a personal injury case.
If a negligent person’s actions have left you hurt, you deserve compensation. With the legal advice of a personal injury attorney, you can file a negligence case and recover what you are entitled to receive.
- See Fox v. City and County of San Francisco, 47 Cal.App.3d 164 (1975).
- See California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) No. 401.
- Restatement (Second) Torts, section 284.
- Facts from Vaughan v. Menlove, 132 ER 490 (1837).
- See Drake v. Dean, 15 Cal.App.4th 915 (1993).
- See CACI No. 402.
- Prichard v. Veterans Cab Co., 63 Cal.2d 727 (1965).
- Savage v. Martin, 628 N.E.2d 606 (1993).
- Rivera v. New York City Transit Authority, 569 N.E.2d 432 (1991).
- Restatement (Second) Torts, section 299A.
- CACI No. 501.
- CACI No. 502.