REASONABLE PERSON – LAW 101

Hello, I’m attorney Kyle Bachus. The legal world is full of overly complicated jargon and terminology that can be intimidating if you don’t know what it means. In my law 101 video series, I’m breaking down some commonly used legal terms so you can be informed and confident should you ever need to take legal action.

In this episode of law 101, we’re going to break down the legal phrase reasonable person.

If you watch some of our other videos, we talked about torts, and we talked about negligence. And we talked about the obligation to act in society as a quote reasonable person. And if you act unreasonably towards others and cause harm, you could be civilly liable. Well, let’s talk about what does it mean reasonable person? Well, reasonable person means a reasonable person acting under the same or similar circumstances to that in which the event occurs.

So let’s say that you were a physically disabled person; you have to act as a reasonable person would who is physically disabled, okay? Let’s say that you’re a doctor; you have to act as a reasonable doctor should act under the same or similar circumstances. Or if you’re a lawyer, you have to act as a reasonable lawyer should under the same or similar circumstances. Although reasonable person is an objective standard, it doesn’t mean that it’s applied the same for every single person or event.

It depends upon what a reasonable person who is the actor should be doing under the same or similar circumstances. Let me tell you one caveat that we often get asked, though. What if you’re an intoxicated person? Can you act as a reasonable intoxicated person under the law? Well, the answer there is absolutely not. An intoxicated person is treated in terms of the reasonable person standard as acting as a reasonably sober person would under the same or similar circumstances even though they’re intoxicated.

So that’s what a reasonable person is under the law. When we’re applying this reasonable person standard, we also get asked questions about children. Well, if you’re 15 years old, you’re judged as a reasonable 15-year-old. What would a reasonable 15-year-old do under the circumstances? If you’re 10 years old, you’re judged on a reasonable person standard as what would a reasonable 10-year-old do under the same or similar circumstances.

Most states have a bottom point at which there is no standard that’s applied. So in most states, if you’re seven years old or under, you don’t have to act reasonably. There’s no application of what a reasonable seven-year-old would do under the same or similar circumstances. And if you’re below a certain age, say seven, you can’t be held accountable for negligence because there’s simply no standard of conduct under which you’re expected to operate.

If you have a question about whether somebody has acted reasonably towards you in causing a harm to you, call Bachus & Schanker. We’re happy to sit down with you and discuss with you this objective reasonable person standard, and how it impacts your particular situation. And to learn more about other law topics that can help you feel informed and confident about the law, make sure to check out more videos in this series.

Reasonable Person FAQs

What is the reasonable person standard in negligence law? 

The reasonable person standard determines legal liability for negligence. In civil law, a party may be liable for damages if they act negligently, or unreasonably. The reasonable person is the legal standard used to evaluate someone’s actions to determine if they may have legal liability for causing harm to others.

What is the reasonable person standard in Colorado?

The reasonable person standard in Colorado is a failure to do any act that a reasonably careful person would do, or doing an act that a reasonably careful person would not do. See Lombard v. Colo. Outdoor Educ. Ctr., 266 P.3d 412, 415 (Colo. App 2011) and Colorado Civil Jury Instructions 9:6 for more details.

Is the reasonable person standard based on the facts of each case?

Yes. A person must conform their conduct to an objective standard of what a person would do in the same or similar circumstances. A reasonable person protects themselves and others from bodily injury. The greater the risk, the more care is required to avoid injury. See Imperial Distrib. Servs., Inc. v. Forrest, 741 P.2d 1251, 1254 (Colo. 1987) for more details.

Why is there a reasonable person standard in negligence law?

Each accident or injury happens in a unique way. There can’t be a law written in advance for every situation that could occur. To have consistency in the law, and fair court decisions, we need a uniform standard to determine who is legally liable and who is not.

Because each accident scenario is one-of-a-kind, this presents a challenge. What’s reasonable in one situation may not be reasonable in another situation. The reasonable person standard is the legal framework that exists to evaluate the actions of a party uniformly while taking into account that the facts are different in each case.

How do you determine the reasonable person standard in a personal injury case?

To determine the reasonable standard in a personal injury case, look at the actions of each party. Evaluate what they did when compared to what a reasonable person would have done in that situation to avoid risk. Not all actions are negligent just because an injury occurred. What’s reasonable depends on the exact circumstances and the level of risk. 

Who decides what a reasonable person would have done? 

The finder of fact decides what a reasonable person would have done. In a jury trial, the finder of fact is the jury. In a bench trial, the judge decides.

What is a motion for summary disposition based on the reasonable person standard?

Even though it’s typically up to the jury to decide what a reasonable person would have done, sometimes, the judge decides before the jury ever gets the chance. The court may decide that there is no dispute about the facts and that the defendant did not act unreasonably.

This kind of ruling is called summary judgment or summary disposition. It is rare, and the courts should only award summary disposition on the question of negligence in the clearest of cases. See Brown v. Martin Marietta Corp., 690 P.2d 889, 891 (Colo. App. 1984) for more details.

What is the reasonable person standard in healthcare?

The reasonable person standard in healthcare is the standard of care exercised by people in the same school of medicine as the defendant. It is an objective standard that takes the person’s professional skills and training into account. See Melville v. Southward, 791 P.2d 383 (Colo. 1990) for more details.

How do you prove the reasonable person standard? 

Proving the reasonable person standard may involve any of the following:

  • Fact witnesses to show what the actions of the defendant were and the circumstances at the time in question
  • References to any laws that were violated, including traffic laws
  • Expert witnesses to explain professional standards or technically complex information
  • Arguments to the jury about how to evaluate and interpret the actions of each party
  • Requesting the appropriate jury instructions so that the jury knows how to evaluate the evidence presented to them

In some cases, proving the reasonable person standard is quite simple. For example, if the person ran a red light, the victim would need to focus on establishing the facts – that the person in fact, did run the red light. Then, the victim would reference the applicable law.

Sometimes, proving the reasonable person standard is more complex. An expert may be needed to explain medical information and what a reasonable physician should have done in a certain situation. An engineer may explain how an amusement park ride malfunctioned and how operators failed to conduct appropriate safety checks.

What steps a victim needs to take when proving the reasonable person standard varies from case to case. Our personal injury lawyers have experience evaluating the needed proof and gathering the evidence to present on the victim’s behalf.

Can a disabled person be negligent?

Yes. A disabled person can be negligent. If a person is disabled, the standard of conduct they must conform to is the standard of a reasonable person with their disability. See McCall v. Meyers, 94 P.3d 1271 (Co. App. 2004) for more details. 

Can a child be negligent in Colorado?

In Colorado, a child under seven years old cannot be negligent. A child seven years old or older may be negligent. Their standard of care is a reasonable child of similar age, experience, and intelligence. See Benallo v. Bare, 162 Colo. 22, 427 P.2d 323 (1967) and Fletcher v. Porter, 754 P.2d 788 (Colo. App. 1988) for more details.

Is there a different test for extremely dangerous situations?

When an activity creates extreme risk, there is a high standard of care. For the highest degree of care to apply:

  1. Passengers must give up freedom of movement, being in the defendant’s custody
  2. Passengers must not have a way to protect themselves or protect an accident
  3. The defendant is in possession and control of the facility

Examples of high-risk situations are amusement park rides and ski lifts. Note: The highest degree of care standard is not used in premises liability claims. See Lewis v. Buckskin Joe’s, Inc., 396 P.2d 933 (1964) and Anderson v. Hyland Hills Park and Recreation District, 119 P.3d 533, 536 (Colo. App. 2004) and Colorado Civ. Jury Instructions 9:7 for more details.