Stephen Hasner | Negligence | April 5, 2022
Negligence claims are ubiquitous in civil courtrooms. However, no two cases are alike – each represents a unique fact pattern. A negligent defendant is liable due to their failure to conform their behavior to an appropriate standard of conduct. But what, exactly, does the standard of conduct demand of the defendant? The “reasonable person” standard is a legal device designed to answer this question.
Meet the “Reasonable Person”
In ordinary situations, everyone has a duty to act as a “reasonable person” (driving on public roads, for example). The “reasonable person” is an imaginary person who prudently conducts affairs to avoid injuring others. When determining liability in a personal injury case, a court might compare the defendant’s conduct with how a reasonable person would have acted under the same circumstances.
If the defendant’s conduct falls short of the reasonable person standard, then they were negligent, and they will bear liability for any resulting personal injury. Some legal scholars have criticized the “reasonable person” standard as ambiguous and even arbitrary.
The Four Elements of a Negligence Claim and How the “Reasonable Person” Standard Applies to Them
The typical negligence claim includes four elements that the victim must prove to win, as detailed below.
The Defendant Owed a Duty of Care to the Victim
This element is almost always present because everyone has a duty to conduct their affairs reasonably safely. However, the defendant might owe no duty of care to a burglar who suffers an injury while breaking into the victim’s home.
The Defendant Breached Their Duty to the Victim
This element is where the “reasonable person” standard figures most prominently. Would a reasonable person have been driving the speed limit during an ice storm? Would a reasonable person have repaired the basement stairwell light to make sure it was safe for visitors who had trouble seeing in the dark?
The Victim Suffered Tangible Harm
The victim must prove they suffered harm. Mere emotional distress (being frightened, for example) is not enough unless the defendant intentionally inflicted the emotional distress. However, if the victim suffered a physical injury, they can recover for the accompanying emotional distress.
The Defendant’s Breach of Duty Caused the Harm to the Victim
Two types of causation apply here – direct cause and proximate cause. Direct cause simply means that the harm to the victim would not have occurred but for the defendant’s breach of duty. Proximate cause means that the harm to the victim was a foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s breach of duty. A “reasonable person” need not foresee all possible consequences of a breach of duty.
Suppose, for example, that the defendant caused a car accident by running a red light and colliding with the victim’s car at 20 mph. The victim’s car was carrying explosives, which detonated and injured someone standing 25 feet away. Arguably, the injury to the bystander was not a foreseeable consequence of the defendant running the red light. The defendant might not bear liability for the injuries to the bystander for this reason.
The “Reasonable Person” Standard is Usually a Judgment Call
Because of the infinite number of fact patterns that might make up a personal injury claim, the “reasonable person” standard is necessarily subjective. In a trial, the jury decides what a reasonable person would have done. In settlement negotiations, it is up to the parties to agree on what a jury might decide.
Exactly what is “reasonable” varies from jury to jury. This inherent subjectivity is why defendants, especially corporate defendants, hesitate to take claims to trial. Juries are so unpredictable that most defendants (and victims) would prefer to resolve their differences at the bargaining table rather than gamble with a jury decision in court.
Negligence Per Se
Negligence per se is a shortcut to proving negligence. Under negligence per se, the defendant is negligent if they broke a law that was designed to protect a particular class of people from a particular type of harm. Traffic laws, for example, protect motorists and pedestrians from traffic accidents. If the defendant broke a traffic law then the defendant is negligent per se, or automatically negligent.
You could characterize negligence per se as an alternative to the “reasonable person” standard. Alternatively, you could assert that a “reasonable person” would never violate such a law.
Schedule a Free Consultation With a Personal Injury Lawyer
Negligence claims are typically more complex than they appear. Sometimes they are worth a lot more money than the victim thinks they are. Seek legal counsel immediately if you believe you have a negligence claim.
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