What Is Considered a “Reasonable Person” When It Comes to Negligence?
November 15, 2022 | Winters & Yonker, P.A.
The “reasonable person” doesn’t actually exist. They are a fictional person that jurists use to provide opposing parties with an objective standard to resolve a negligence claim. The question of whether a defendant was negligent often comes down to the question, “Would a ‘reasonable person’ have behaved in the manner that the defendant did under the same circumstances?”
The Elements of a Negligence Claim and How the “Reasonable Person” Factors In
Courts break down personal injury claims into individual elements. A negligence claim, for example, breaks down into four elements—duty of care, breach of duty, damages, and causation. Following are brief explanations of these four elements with commentary on how the “reasonable person” standard applies.
Duty of Care
Everyone (except perhaps a small child) has a duty of care towards other people. A motorist, for example, must drive carefully enough to avoid endangering other motorists on public roads. A cardiologist, by contrast, is subject to a relatively high professional duty of care towards their patients. In a negligence claim, the question of duty often comes down to “What would a reasonable person (or a reasonable professional) do in that situation?”
Breach of Duty
To breach a duty of care is to fail to act when action is appropriate or to act in an inappropriate manner. Tailgating another driver might breach a motorist’s duty of care towards other motorists, for example. Failing to order certain lab tests on behalf of a particular patient might breach a doctor’s duty of care. The hypothetical “reasonable person,” by contrast, never breaches their duty of care.
“Damages” means the losses that the negligence victim suffered. They include tangible damages, such as medical expenses and lost earnings, as well as intangible damages, such as mental anguish and emotional distress. In rare cases, they include punitive damages.
Causation is the element that connects damages with breach of duty. If the defendant’s breach of duty did not cause the damages the victim suffered, then the negligence claim is invalid. “Negligence in the air,” so to speak, is not enough to justify awarding compensation. There are two kinds of causation—cause in fact and proximate cause.
Cause in Fact
Cause in fact is equivalent to “but for” causation, as in “but for the defendant’s behavior, the damages would not have occurred.” Cause in fact is almost always necessary to win a negligence claim, but it is not enough by itself. Proximate cause is also necessary.
A reasonable person would foresee–well, reasonably far into the future. They are not required to foresee remote consequences, but they do need to be aware of the consequences of their actions. Suppose the defendant, a doctor, failed to order a C-section for a pregnant patient in the delivery room. If the patient is thereby harmed, the doctor is liable. The doctor is also liable if the baby suffers an injury because this is reasonably foreseeable.
However, further suppose that the patient’s husband, distraught at his wife’s death, commits suicide. Can the personal representative of the husband’s estate win a wrongful death lawsuit against the doctor? Almost certainly not; even a “reasonable doctor” cannot be expected to foresee that failing to order a C-section would end the life of the patient’s husband. The “reasonable person” is not expected to be perfect.
Special Case: Negligence Per Se
Under the legal principle of negligence per se, a defendant is automatically negligent if they violate a formal safety standard—a traffic law, for example, or a trucking regulation. Safety regulations provide an objective standard of propriety that a negligence claim might otherwise lack.
As a consequence, there is no need to use the “reasonable person” to provide an objective standard. Another way of looking at this problem is that a reasonable person would never violate a safety standard.
Speak With a New Port Richey Personal Injury Lawyer
You might not need a lawyer for a small claim. However, the larger your claim is, the more likely you are to need a lawyer to obtain full compensation. The problem is that you might need to speak with a lawyer before you even understand the actual value of your claim. That’s okay, because most New Port Richey personal injury lawyers offer free initial consultations to review your case.
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For more information, please contact Winters & Yonker, P.A. to schedule a free consultation with a personal injury lawyer in New Port Richey today. We have five convenient locations in Florida, including Tampa, Clearwater, St. Petersburg, New Port Richey, and Lakeland.