What Is Negligence and The Reasonable Person Standard? Legal Concepts Defined For Non-Lawyers


Normally when we think of negligence we might think “neglect.” The boy neglected to feed his goldfish and the goldfish died. The teenager neglected to study for her final exam and as a result she failed the exam. “Neglect” essentially means failing to do something. Let us assume a driver ran a red light and hit you. We would say that the other driver was negligent in the operation of his vehicle. He failed to do something; he failed to stop at a red light. That failure caused him to hit your car.

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What did he fail to do? The driver who hit you failed to act as a reasonable person would in the same or similar circumstances. You’re now asking, what is a reasonable person and what does that have to do with this situation? A reasonable person is a made up, theoretical, imaginary person.  He’s like that dependable, nerdy, middle-of-the-road guy that we all know.

If “Reasonable Person” went to a bar he might drink one or two beers, while you and your friends have half a dozen. You might risk running out of gas by driving on an empty tank, “Reasonable Person” would completely fill up his gas tank. You might occasionally roll through a stop sign, “Reasonable Person” will usually always stop at stop signs. Now “Reasonable Person” does not always choose the safest or most conservative action, and sometimes “Reasonable Person” acts differently depending on external events and variables. For instance, “Reasonable Person” might usually drive 55-60 mph on the highway, but if it is raining “Reasonable Person” might slow down to 35-45 mph.

Taking this concept back to the original driver who hit you; he is negligent because he did not drive like “Reasonable Person” would in the same situation. The driver was negligent because a reasonable person, our theoretical imaginary friend “Reasonable Person”, would not have run the red light. Since he did not drive like a reasonable person, and since his failure to do so resulted in the accident, he is negligent.

A little clarification. The reasonable person standard is not what the safest driver would do, because that is not necessarily reasonable. This would be an impossible standard to follow. We would all be negligent, even if we followed all the traffic safety laws. Nor is a reasonable person an average person. You might live in a city where everyone drives like participants in Death Race 2000 or Mad Max. The average driver there might be a terribly unsafe driver. No, the reasonable person is that middle-of-the road, conservative guy who drives fairly safely, and follows the traffic safety laws.

To add some twists, you might ask “well what if you are handicap how does that change things?” If you are handicap, you must act as a reasonable person would with that same handicap. “Okay what if I’m drunk?” Well, in this case, the law does not make any accommodations for your inebriated state. This makes sense. It would be bizarre if someone could drive their car drunk, weave in and out of traffic lanes, hit a van full of kids and be able to say, “I wasn’t negligent because I drove as a reasonable drunk person would have driven in the same situation.” “Reasonable Person” does not drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

You now have at least an inkling of what negligence and the reasonable person standard means.