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Negligence and the 'Reasonable Person'

To be negligent is to act, or fail to act, in a way that causes injury to another person. But no one is perfect. Accidents happen to the best of us.

What separates a common accident from an act of negligence is the "standard of care" required in a given situation. By neglecting the proper standard of care for a given situation, an individual may be found liable for the plaintiff's injuries.

For example, a motorist must exercise the same level of care that a "reasonable person" would in the same situation. This includes obeying traffic laws and paying attention to pedestrians and other drivers.

If a severely nearsighted driver forgets to wear their glasses, runs a red light, and gets in a car accident with a jaywalking pedestrian, they would be considered negligent. A reasonable nearsighted person would not drive without glasses or contacts. They would understand the risk of motor vehicle accidents.

The Element of "Legal Duty" in Negligence

In a negligence lawsuit, the injured party must prove that the defendant had a "legal duty" towards them. This duty can be a responsibility to act or refrain from acting in a certain way.

For instance, a driver has a legal duty to obey traffic rules and not cause harm to other road users. A doctor has a duty to provide competent medical care to their patients. If a defendant fails to fulfill their legal duty, and the defendant's actions result in harm to another party, they can be held responsible for negligence.

Negligence, the Reasonable Person, and Injury Claims

The so-called "reasonable" person in personal injury law focuses on how a typical person, with ordinary prudence, would act in certain circumstances. The test as to whether an individual has acted as a reasonable person under this area of law is an objective one. It doesn't take into account the specific abilities of a defendant. Thus, even a person who has low intelligence or is chronically careless is held to the same reasonable care standard as a more careful person or a person of higher intelligence.

A jury generally decides whether a defendant has acted as a reasonable person would have acted, in addition to the other elements of a negligence case. In making this decision during a personal injury lawsuit, the jury generally considers the defendant's conduct in light of what the defendant actually knows or should have reasonably known, experienced, or perceived.

For example, one may consider a defendant working on a loading dock and tossing large bags of grain onto a truck. While doing this, the defendant notices two children playing near the truck. The defendant continues to throw bags toward the truck and strikes one of the children.

In this instance, a jury would take into account the defendant's actual knowledge that children were playing in the area when determining whether the defendant acted reasonably under the circumstances. The defendant would be liable for negligence if the defendant owed a duty of care to the injured plaintiff.

A jury also considers knowledge that should be common to everyone in a particular community. Accordingly, the defendant in the example above would be responsible for knowing that a bag of grain could injure a child. They would also be responsible for knowing the natural propensities of children.

Tort Law and Negligence

Tort law deals with situations where a person's behavior has unfairly caused someone else to suffer loss or harm. In the realm of torts, negligence is a significant aspect.

Negligence is a mode in which many types of injuries can occur. Most personal injury cases are based on negligence, whether they involve:

  • Car accidents
  • Slips and falls
  • Medical malpractice

Insurance Companies and Negligence Claims

Insurance companies play a significant role in negligence claims. In many instances, when a negligence claim is made — such as in an auto accident — the insurance company of the negligent party may step in to settle the claim. They might negotiate with the injured party or their attorney to agree on a settlement amount to cover:

  • Medical bills
  • Lost wages and other economic damages
  • Pain and suffering

Negligence and the Reasonable Person: Children

A child generally is not expected to act as a reasonable adult would act. Instead, courts hold children to a modified standard. Under this standard, a child's actions are compared with the conduct of other children of the same:

  • Age
  • Experience
  • Intelligence

Courts in some jurisdictions, however, apply the adult standard of care to children who engage in certain adult activities, such as:

  • Driving a car
  • Handling weapons

Medical Malpractice

Medical malpractice involves a breach of the standard of care by a healthcare provider. This could be a wrong diagnosis, incorrect treatment, or even a lack of informed consent.

If a patient is injured as a result of medical malpractice, they might be entitled to compensation for:

  • Medical expenses
  • Loss of income
  • Pain and suffering

The concept of medical malpractice extends beyond incorrect diagnoses or treatments. It may also involve:

  • Surgical errors
  • Premature discharge
  • Failure to follow-up
  • Ignoring or misinterpreting lab results
  • Improper medication dosage

Proving medical malpractice requires showing that a competent doctor would not have made the same mistake under similar circumstances. In a successful claim, the injured party could also receive compensation for future medical expenses, diminished earning capacity, and any long-term pain and suffering caused by the malpractice.

Wrongful Death and Serious Injuries

Negligence can also lead to wrongful death or serious injuries. In these instances, the injured person or the family of a person who has died may sue for compensation. Compensation can cover economic damages like medical expenses and loss of income, non-economic damages such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, and, in some cases, punitive damages.

In the case of wrongful death or serious injuries, the extent of the negligence can influence the amount and types of compensation awarded. This includes considerations like whether the negligence led to long-term disability, the need for ongoing medical care, or a significant loss of quality of life.

Additionally, if the injured party was the primary earner for a family, loss of consortium (losing the intangible benefits of a relationship), or loss of support may also be considered in the claim. If the negligence was particularly egregious, punitive damages might be awarded to punish the wrongdoer and deter similar conduct in the future.

Product Liability and Negligence

Product liability refers to a manufacturer or seller being held liable for placing a defective product into the hands of a consumer. Responsibility for a product defect that causes injury lies with all sellers of the product who are in the distribution chain. If a product causes injury to a consumer, the injured party can sue for damages under a negligence theory.

Product liability not only covers tangible items but can also apply to intangibles (like gas), naturals (like pets), and real estate. There are three major types of product defects that give rise to liability:

  • Design defects
  • Manufacturing defects
  • Defects in marketing (failure to warn or improper instructions)

To win a product liability claim, it's necessary to show that the product was defective and that the defect made the product unreasonably dangerous, leading to injury while being used in an intended or foreseeable manner.

Statute of Limitations in Negligence Cases

The statute of limitations is a state law that sets the maximum time that parties have to initiate legal proceedings from the date of an alleged offense. The time limit varies by jurisdiction and type of case. In many personal injury cases, plaintiffs have a limited time (typically two to three years) from the date of injury to file a lawsuit.

Statutes of limitations vary widely based on many factors. These can include:

  • The nature of the claim
  • The jurisdiction where the incident occurred
  • The age of the plaintiff at the time of the incident

Certain exceptions may extend or shorten the typical statute of limitations. For example, if a plaintiff could not have reasonably discovered the harm caused by the negligence until after the typical time limit, the "discovery rule" might extend the statute.

Workers' Compensation and Negligence

Workers' compensation is a form of state compensation scheme that provides wage replacement and medical benefits to employees injured in the course of employment. However, by accepting workers' compensation, the injured worker often gives up the right to sue their employer for negligence. If a third party's negligence caused the injury, the worker might still have a personal injury claim against that party.

The relationship between workers' compensation and negligence can be complex. Workers' compensation is typically a no-fault system. Employees can generally receive benefits for work-related injuries regardless of whether they or their employers were at fault. However, in cases where a third party's negligence caused or contributed to the injury, a worker might have a separate claim against that party. This could be relevant in situations involving:

  • Defective products
  • Car accidents while on the job
  • Negligence by a contractor at the same worksite

Emotional Distress and Negligence

In some cases, an injured person can claim compensation for emotional distress caused by negligence. Emotional distress is a type of mental suffering or anguish induced by an incident of either negligence or intent. Proving emotional distress can be challenging and often requires medical documentation and testimony.

Emotional distress claims can be complex and highly individual. They often depend on:

  • The severity of the psychological trauma
  • The nature of the negligence that caused it
  • The impact on the person's life

Some jurisdictions require proof of physical injury to claim emotional distress. Others recognize "standalone" emotional distress claims. The impacts of emotional distress can include effects like insomnia, depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In severe cases, the distressed person may be compensated for therapy costs, medication costs, and any decrease in life satisfaction attributable to their emotional distress.

A Personal Injury Lawyer Can Help

If you or a loved one has been injured through negligence — something a 'reasonable person' wouldn't have caused —it means someone failed to act in a reasonable manner and is therefore liable for any injuries that resulted. But how strong is your claim? Is a personal injury claim worth pursuing?

You can find out more about the reasonable person standard by discussing your personal injury case with an experienced personal injury attorney in your area and getting some legal advice. An experienced legal team can explain the basics of personal injury law and help you recover compensation for your property damage and medical expenses.

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