The “Reasonable Person” Standard – What Does it Mean For My Negligence Case?

Most personal injury cases are based on negligence claims. A person might be negligent if they failed to act with the same level of care that a reasonable person would have used in a similar situation. The “reasonable person” is used to judge what someone of ordinary prudence would have done in the same situation.

Who is the “Reasonable Person?”

The reasonable person in a personal injury case is a hypothetical standard of behavior decided by a jury. The jury listens to the evidence during trial and decides what a “reasonable person” would have done in the same or similar situation.

Jury members compare the defendant’s conduct to the reasonable person standard. If the defendant falls short of the reasonable person standard, the person is negligent and liable for any damages caused by their conduct. 

For example, suppose there is evidence that the defendant was using his cell phone to send a text at the time of a crash. The jury may conclude that a reasonable person would not text and drive because of the risk of causing a distracted driving accident

If the jury finds that the defendant’s texting and driving caused the accident, the defendant would be liable for the plaintiff’s damages. 

The Reasonable Person Standard and Negligence

The reasonable person standard is only one part of a negligence claim. An accident victim must prove all four legal elements of negligence to receive compensation for their injuries and damages.

There are four legal elements of a negligence claim:

Duty of Care

Duty is a requirement to perform conduct required by personal commitment, law, morality, or custom. In a negligence claim, the duty of care creates a legal relationship between the parties.

For example, property owners have a duty of care to ensure their premises are safe for visitors and guests. Physicians owe a duty of care to their patients to provide services that meet or exceed acceptable medical standards. Drivers owe a duty of care to others using the roadway to follow traffic laws and operate their motor vehicles safely.

Breach of Duty of Care

The reasonable person standard is used to prove this legal element of a negligence claim. Breaching the duty of care means the person’s conduct fell short of the standard set by a reasonably prudent person.

In a personal injury case, the reasonable person standard is based on the facts and circumstances of the case. Therefore, the standard can change depending on the situation.

Foreseeability can also be a factor. For example, if the jury determines that there was no way a reasonable person could have foreseen the consequences of their actions, they might find that the person did not breach the duty of care.

Also, the jury may find that the accident or injury resulted from circumstances beyond the defendant’s control. In that case, the defendant would not be negligent.

Causation

If the jury finds that the defendant breached the duty of care, the plaintiff must prove that the breach caused the accident that resulted in their injury. 

For example, a driver fails to yield the right of way. The failure to yield the right of way causes an intersection accident. The collision results in the plaintiff’s traumatic brain injury and broken bones.

If the plaintiff cannot prove causation, the defendant cannot be held liable for damages, even if they clearly breached the duty of care.

Damages

The final step in a negligence case is to prove damages. Damages may include economic and non-economic damages. 

Whenever a person is injured in an accident, they generally sustain damages, such as:

  • Medical bills
  • Physical pain and suffering
  • Lost income 
  • Disabilities and impairments
  • Decrease in quality of life and enjoyment of life
  • Mental anguish and emotional distress
  • Scarring and disfigurement

Medical records, payroll records, and testimony by the injured victim can be used as evidence to prove damages.

How Do I Prove What a Reasonable Person Would Have Done?

Testimony from experts may be required to help jury members decide what would have been reasonable conduct in a situation. For example, an expert may testify about the dangers and risks of distracted driving, or a medical expert might explain what the acceptable medical standard is for a given situation. 

In some cases, laws and statutes might help define reasonable behavior, such as drunk driving laws and speed limits. In other cases, an attorney may use examples from other legal cases that set a precedent for what would be considered reasonable.

The reasonable person standard is only relevant in personal injury lawsuits that go to trial. If you settle your personal injury claim, the other party accepts all or some liability for the accident. Therefore, you do not need to fight to prove what is reasonable and that the at-fault party breached the duty of care.