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Reasonable Person Standard in Negligence Cases

The “reasonable person” or “reasonably prudent person” standard offers a useful metric for assessing the behavior of persons in a case. Whether or not we ourselves always behave in a reasonable way, most of us have an idea—possibly a very specific and definite one—of how a “reasonable person” would act under a given circumstance, and we are quick to notice when the people around us deviate from that standard.

The “reasonable person” standard is utilized during lawsuits, allowing a judge and/or jury to scrutinize the facts and evidence of a case by considering how a hypothetical reasonable person might have acted under the same circumstances. In negligence cases, therefore, the “reasonable person” is one who fulfills his or her duty of care to others to the extent that circumstances permit.

Need to Know

  • The “reasonable person” is, generally, a hypothetical individual of mental soundness and good judgment.
  • The reasonable person is not representative of a community average, but rather of common sense.
  • The reasonable person standard helps a jury to determine whether the persons involved in a case acted in a reasonable way under the particular circumstances of the case.

In This Article

What the “Reasonable Person” Is—and Isn’t

The “reasonable person” is not necessarily representative of a community average. The concept instead invokes common sense: not only the ability to reason, but the literal means of perception typically held in common by the parties involved with a case. However, the reasonable person’s abilities and circumstances correspond to those of the person being discussed: for instance, if a deaf person were accused of negligence, that person’s behavior would be judged according to the standard of a reasonable person with the same degree of hearing.

Also importantly, the “reasonable person” need not be an educated person. The least educated member of a jury has just as much potential to demonstrate reason as the handling attorney, even if the latter’s specialized knowledge will probably lead to different expressions of that reason.

In other words, reason does not demand a high degree of knowledge, but rather an effective power of processing and acting on the knowledge that one has. This means that the reasonable person can be just about anything except for unreasonable—that is, lacking the maturity to reason properly (i.e. a child) or otherwise not responsible for his or her own actions (for instance, in certain cases of mental illness).

The Role of the Jury in Applying the Standard

The reasonable person is usually assumed to be thoughtful, law-abiding, capable of common sense, and willing to follow appropriate rules and regulations under the circumstances that existed at the time that gave rise to the lawsuit. This makes the hypothetical reasonable person an important guideline for a jury to follow in cases involving negligence.

While the law always aims for an objective standard of reasonability, such an intention is bound to be complicated by a simple truth: just about everyone’s private ideal of the “reasonable person” is themselves—or, at any rate, themselves on their best behavior. (A distracted person who attempted to cross the street without looking for cars may well admit failure to act in a reasonable way. This person, while not lacking a standard of reasonable behavior, failed to live up to that standard.)  What is reasonable also requires context: what were the external factors impacting the person at the time of occurrence? For instance, conduct viewed during a tranquil, uninterrupted period may be seen through an entirely different lens if the same conduct is occurring while a dangerous, threatening condition is presenting itself.

This means that the power of a court to assess what is reasonable is as reasonable as its jury, and that the judgments of one jury may result in a different outcome than those of another jury—even if every individual member of each jury is a person of sound mind who has been deemed fit for jury duty.

For example, as a general principle, following the rules of the road is reasonable: it is reasonable to stop at stop signs and unreasonable to run red lights. But let’s say your jury happens to be made up of several particularly careful people. Such a jury might be more likely to reach harsher judgements about the behavior of someone who did not use the caution that they themselves might have used under the same circumstances. It is this subjectivity within the objective standard which makes careful jury selection critical to the legal process.

In a civil negligence case, your attorney or attorneys will be responsible for jury selection. By carefully questioning the randomly selected potential jurors, your attorney will work to rule out people who might prove hostile to your case, due to personal experiences or prejudices which might bias them in the proceedings.

A good attorney will also strive to ensure that those on your jury are suitable to the judgement of reasonable behavior as it affects your specific situation. For instance, because of high traffic and the prevalence of public transportation, many New York City residents are not drivers. If you are in a motor vehicle accident, however, it stands to reason that your jury should consist of drivers, as they will have a driver’s perspective on what is or is not reasonable and will be better able to understand the circumstances of your case.

Other Persons Who May Help a Court Determine Reasonability

Although the task of determining reasonability resides with the jury, they are not the only people that a good attorney will consider when attempting to show that a defendant acted unreasonably

If, for example, you were involved in an accident while working on a construction site, or when you went bungee-jumping and your facilitator did not take proper precaution to secure your harness, you yourself may possess the background knowledge (of the field of work, hobby, or other niche) to understand that unreasonable behavior occurred. It is likely, however, that your jury will not have your awareness of the proper procedures and conduct in these niche situations.

In such cases, your attorney may rely not only on your own testimony, but on the testimony of an expert witness with knowledge of the area. This witness will help the jury to properly understand your circumstances and to make an accurate judgement as to what is, or is not, reasonable in the field.

A good attorney will also carefully examine the incident to see if any of the persons or elements involved serve to illustrate unreasonable behavior by the defendant. In one case settled by Block O’Toole & Murphy, our client slipped and fell on an icy walkway at his condominium complex. The complex, together with the snow removal team they contracted, claimed that they had already cleared the snow and ice as much as was reasonable, and had no obligation to do any more.

Our attorneys spoke to the EMTs that had responded to the fall, who testified that they themselves had struggled with the slippery ice on the walkway when coming to our client’s rescue, going as far as to salt the ice themselves in order to safely navigate. The fact that newcomers to the situation were compelled to fix the hazard for their own safety made it clear that the snow removal crew had not done its job within a reasonable person’s estimation.

Reasonable Application of the Reasonable Person Standard

Because New York is a pure comparative negligence state—meaning that recovery is still possible when the court determines that a plaintiff bears some share of responsibility for negligence—it is particularly important that the reasonable person standard be treated with the nuance it deserves. There are greater and lesser degrees of unreasonable behavior, and extenuating circumstances—including the negligence of the defendant—may cause a behavior on the part of the plaintiff, such as violation of a traffic law, to be more reasonable than it might have been under ordinary circumstances.

The attorneys at Block O’Toole & Murphy are highly experienced in the intricacies of New York negligence cases and deeply invested in making sure their clients are understood. Contact Block O’Toole & Murphy to receive a free legal consultation by calling 212-736-5300, or by filling out our online contact form.

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