In a personal injury claim, the standard of care that defines negligence is often measured against what a “reasonable person” would do in a similar situation. Interestingly enough, this hypothetical “reasonable person” might decide your case even though they don’t actually exist. However, determining the particular characteristics of a “reasonable person” can be a complex task, as they vary from case to case.
The Four Legal Elements of a Negligence Claim
Every personal injury claim includes certain “elements,” which are facts that you must prove to win. The most common type of personal injury claim, negligence, typically includes four elements: duty, breach, damages, and causation. Below is an explanation of each, with special attention to how the “reasonable person” figures in.
Duty of Care
Every adult of normal intelligence owes a duty of care to everyone else. This ordinary duty of care includes the duty to drive safely and to generally refrain from subjecting others to unreasonable risks of harm. The question here is, “What should a reasonable person do in this situation?” Would a reasonable person, for example, drive the speed limit on sheet ice during a blizzard? Probably not.
Breach of Duty
Breach of duty means failure to do your duty, either by doing something you shouldn’t do or by failing to do something you should do. Failing to turn on your windshield wipers while driving during a rainstorm is an example. You breach your duty of care when your behavior fails to meet the standard set by a “reasonable person” as defined by the applicable standard of care.
“Damages” means losses, both tangible and intangible. They include economic damages, such as medical expenses and lost earnings, as well as non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering. In some cases, they include punitive damages. Economic damages are relatively easy to prove, while proving non-economic damages can immerse you into a dispute about how much your subjective suffering is worth.
The “reasonable person” figures in here when the defendant accuses the plaintiff of failing to mitigate their damages. An example of this would be if you failed to follow your doctor’s instructions, thereby causing your medical condition to deteriorate and doubling your medical expenses. Why should the defendant pay for damages that you could have avoided with the exercise of reasonable care?
The element of causation is what links the defendant’s breach of their duty of care (in other words, their negligence) with your injury. Without causation, you have no claim. Even if the defendant collided with you while drunk, for example, they would still defeat your claim if they could show that the accident would have occurred if they had been sober. Two types of causation matter: cause in fact and proximate cause.
Cause in Fact
Cause in fact is the logical type of causation. Cause in fact exists if you can prove that, but for the defendant’s negligence, your injury would not have occurred. Cause in fact is necessary, but not sufficient to give you victory. You also need to establish proximate cause.
Proximate cause is the subjective type of cause, and it is here that the “reasonable person” again becomes relevant. Even if cause in fact exists, the defendant is not liable if a “reasonable person” would not have foreseen the result. Even a reasonable person cannot foresee everything.
Special Case: Negligence Per Se
In negligence per se (a shortcut to proving negligence), an enforceable safety standard such as a traffic law, for example, or a regulation on the construction or maintenance of swimming pools, serve as the standard of care. In this case, you don’t need to ask, “What should a reasonable person do in this situation?” A reasonable person would comply with the law.
Speak With a Reputable Personal Injury Lawyer
If you have been injured due to the negligence of another party, it is important to seek legal counsel as soon as possible. An experienced personal injury lawyer can guide you through the process of filing a claim.