The Reasonable Person
A person has acted negligently if she has departed from the conduct expected of a reasonably prudent person acting under similar circumstances. The hypothetical reasonable person provides an objective by which the conduct of others is judged. In law, the reasonable person is not an average person or a typical person but a composite of the community's judgment as to how the typical community member should behave in situations that might pose a threat of harm to the public. Even though the majority of people in the community may behave in a certain way, that does not establish the standard of conduct of the reasonable person. For example, a majority of people in a community may jay-walk, but jaywalking might still fall below the community's standards of safe conduct.
The concept of the reasonable person distinguishes negligence from intentional torts such as ASSAULT AND BATTERY. To prove an intentional tort, the plaintiff seeks to establish that the defendant deliberately acted to injure the plaintiff. In a negligence suit, however, the plaintiff seeks to establish that the failure of the defendant to act as a reasonable person caused the plaintiff's injury. An intoxicated driver who accidentally injures a pedestrian may not have intended to cause the pedestrian's injury. But because a reasonable person would not drive while intoxicated because it creates an unreasonable risk of harm to pedestrians and other drivers, an intoxicated driver may be held liable to an injured plaintiff for negligence despite his lack of intent to injure the plaintiff.
The law considers a variety of factors in determining whether a person has acted as the hypothetical reasonable person would have acted in a similar situation. These factors include the knowledge, experience, and perception of the person, the activity the person is engaging in, the physical characteristics of the person, and the circumstances surrounding the person's actions.
Knowledge, Experience, and Perception The law takes into account a person's knowledge, experience, and perceptions in determining whether the individual has acted as a reasonable person would have acted in the same circumstances. Conduct must be judged in light of a person's actual knowledge and observations, because the reasonable person always takes this into account. Thus, if a driver sees another car approaching at night without lights, the driver must act reasonably to avoid an accident, even though the driver would not have been negligent in failing to see the other car.
In addition to actual knowledge, the law also considers most people to have the same knowledge, experience, and ability to perceive as the hypothetical reasonable person. In the absence of unusual circumstances, a person must see what is clearly visible and hear what is clearly audible. Therefore, a driver of a car hit by a train at an unobstructed railroad crossing cannot claim that she was not negligent because she did not see or hear the train, because a reasonable person would have seen or heard the train.
Also, a person cannot deny personal knowledge of basic facts commonly known in the community. The reasonable person knows that ice is slippery, that live wires are dangerous, that alcohol impairs driving ability, and that children might run into the street when they are playing. To act as a reasonable person, an individual must even take into account her lack of knowledge of some situations, such as when walking down a dark, unfamiliar corridor.
Finally, a person who undertakes a particular activity is ordinarily considered to have the knowledge common to others who engage in that activity. A motorist must know the rules of the road and a product manufacturer must know the characteristics and dangers of its product, at least to the extent they are generally known in the industry.
Special Skills If a person engages in an activity requiring special skills, education, training, or experience, such as piloting an airplane, the standard by which his conduct is measured is the conduct of a reasonably skilled, competent, and experienced person who is a qualified member of the group authorized to engage in that activity. In other words, the hypothetical reasonable person is a skilled, competent, and experienced person who engages in the same activity. Often persons practicing these special skills must be licensed, such as physicians, lawyers, architects, barbers, pilots, and drivers. Anyone who performs these special skills, whether qualified or not, is held to the standards of conduct of those properly qualified to do so, because the public relies on the special expertise of those who engage in such activities. Thus, an unlicensed driver who takes his friends for a joyride is held to the standard of conduct of an experienced, licensed driver.
The law does not make a special allowance for beginners with regard to special skills. The learner, beginner, or trainee in a special skill is held to the standard of conduct of persons who are reasonably skilled and experienced in the activity. Sometimes the beginner is held to a standard he cannot meet. For example, a first-time driver clearly does not possess the experience and skill of an experienced driver. Although it may seem unfair to hold the beginner to the standards of the more experienced person, this standard protects the general public from the risk of a beginner's lack of competence, because the community is usually defenseless to guard against such risks.
Physical Characteristics The law takes a person's physical characteristics into account in determining whether that person's conduct is negligent. Whether a person's conduct is reasonable, and therefore not negligent, is measured against a reasonably prudent person with the same physical characteristics. There are two reasons for taking physical characteristics into account. A physically impaired individual cannot be expected to conform to a standard of conduct that would be physically impossible for her to meet. On the other hand, a physically challenged person must act reasonably in light of her handicap, and she may be negligent in taking a risk that is unreasonable in light of her known physical limitations. Thus, it would be negligent for a blind person to drive an automobile.
Mental Capacity Although a person's physical characteristics are taken into account in determining negligence, the person's mental capacity is generally ignored and does not excuse the person from acting according to the reasonable person standard. The fact that an individual is lacking in intelligence, judgment, memory, or emotional stability does not excuse the person's failure to act as a reasonably prudent person would have acted under the same circumstances. For example, a person who causes a forest fire by failing to extinguish his campfire cannot claim that he was not negligent because he lacked the intelligence, judgment, or experience to appreciate the risk of an untended campfire.
Similarly, evidence of voluntary intoxication will not excuse conduct that is otherwise negligent. Although intoxication affects a person's judgment, voluntary intoxication will not excuse negligent conduct, because it is the person's conduct, not his or her mental condition, that determines negligence. In some cases a person's intoxication is relevant to determining whether his conduct is negligent, however, because undertaking certain activities, such as driving, while intoxicated poses a danger to others.
Children Children may be negligent, but they are not held to the same standard of conduct as adults. A child's conduct is measured against the conduct expected of a child of similar age, intelligence, and experience. Unlike the standard for adults, the standard of reasonable conduct for children takes into account subjective factors such as intelligence and experience. In this sense the standard is less strict than for adults, because children normally do not engage in the high-risk activities of adults and adults dealing with children are expected to anticipate their "childish" behavior.
In many states children are presumed incapable of negligence below a certain age, usually seven years. In some states children between the ages of seven and fourteen years are presumed to be incapable of negligence, although this presumption can be rebutted. Once a person reaches the age of majority, usually eighteen years, she is held to adult standards of conduct.
One major exception to the rules of negligence exists with regard to children. If a child is engaging in what is considered an "adult activity," such as driving an automobile or flying an airplane, the child will be held to an adult standard of care. The higher standard of care imposed for these types of activities is justified by the special skills required to engage in them and the danger they pose to the public.
Emergencies The law recognizes that even a reasonable person can make errors in judgment in emergency situations. Therefore, a person's conduct in an emergency is evaluated in light of whether it was a reasonable response under the circumstances, even though, in hindsight, another course of action might have avoided the injury.
In some circumstances failure to anticipate an emergency may constitute negligence. The reasonable person anticipates, and takes precautions against, foreseeable emergencies. For example, the owner of a theater must consider the possibility of a fire, and the owner of a swimming pool must consider the possibility of a swimmer drowning. Failure to guard against such emergencies can constitute negligence.
Also, a person can be negligent in causing an emergency, even if he acts reasonably during the emergency. A theater owner whose negligence causes a fire, for instance, would be liable for the injuries to the patrons, even if he saved lives during the fire.
Conduct of Others Finally, the reasonable person takes into account the conduct of others and regulates his own conduct accordingly. A reasonable person must even foresee the unlawful or negligent conduct of others if the situation warrants. Thus, a person may be found negligent for leaving a car unlocked with the keys in the ignition because of the foreseeable risk of theft, or for failing to slow down in the vicinity of a school yard where children might negligently run into the street.
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