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What is the Reasonable Person Test?

Reading time: 12 mins

The reasonable person test is a benchmark of behaviour for determining whether something is reasonable or not. The idea of a reasonable person is a made-up concept used to help apply the law consistently.

The reasonable person is a fictional person who exercises reasonable judgement and skill. Various areas of law, such as employment law, contract law, and torts, use the reasonable person test.

Using the test of the reasonable person assists with objectivity. Without being objective, standards of behaviour may differ too greatly as what one considers ‘reasonable’ another may consider ‘unreasonable’.

Key takeaways

1.   The reasonable person test is used to standardise the application of the law

2.   The reasonable person is purely objective

3.   There are limitations to the objective standard

Who is the reasonable person?

The reasonable person refers to a hypothetical person who demonstrates reasonable judgment or skill. A reasonable person is careful and makes wise choices to stay safe. They avoid putting themselves in dangerous situations and know how to protect themselves from harm.

The reasonable person is different from the average person. The average person may not always be reasonable.

Did the person show the same level of care and caution as an ordinary person would in similar circumstances? Essentially, this is the question posed to the jury when applying the reasonable person standard.

Lawyers frequently use this concept in civil cases involving negligence. For instance, if a driver runs a red light and causes an accident, the law considers whether a reasonable person would have engaged in such behaviour. If not, the driver may face liability for any resulting harm.

Alternatively, if there was an unforeseeable mechanical failure, such as brake failure, even the most prudent individual would be unable to prevent the incident. In such cases, we may conclude that the driver acted reasonably and should not be held accountable.

The reasonable person standard is employed in situations where a defendant has a duty to others and potentially breaches that duty. Examples of such duties include a driver’s obligation to adhere to traffic laws and operate their vehicle safely, a shopkeeper’s responsibility to maintain a hazard-free environment, and a factory’s duty to appropriately dispose of toxic waste to protect the public.

liquidated damages clause

Why is the test used?

The reasonable person test helps decision-makers use an objective standard. This is important when figuring out the cause of a shared set of facts or making a big decision.

It can be used to determine negligence in both criminal law, tort law, and contract law to determine contractual intent, or if there has been a breach of the standard of care.

A reasonable person is someone who acts how most people in their community would act in a specific situation.

Is the test objective or subjective?

The reasonable person test is purely objective with the defendant’s specific knowledge irrelevant. What matters is what a reasonable person should have known, what actions would have been reasonable in the given circumstances, and what steps the defendant took.

However, the court may occasionally consider the defendant’s characteristics. For instance, a competent surgeon accused of medical malpractice would not be evaluated based on the standards of a reasonable person without surgical expertise. They are expected to meet the professional standard of care in their field, regardless of their background or training.

Limitations to the objective standard

One shortcoming in the reasonable person standard is the potential for differing interpretations of what constitutes reasonableness. Juries, comprised of individuals with varying levels of caution and fearfulness, may sometimes arrive at unexpected conclusions. For instance, overly cautious drivers might perceive common driving practices as unreasonable and consequently judge more harshly.

Courts have also recognised other limitations on the objective standard. One limitation is that professionals or experts are expected to meet higher standards than the average person.

Additionally, courts have applied limitations concerning children. A child’s actions are not compared to those of a reasonable adult unless they are engaged in adult activities. It is widely acknowledged that even the most sensible 7-year-old may behave in ways that a reasonable adult would not.

Contemplating these exceptions can prompt further questions, such as:

1.    Should a medical student or a first-year surgery resident be judged in the same manner as a surgeon with decades of experience?

2.    How should a 17-year-old be evaluated?

3.    What about someone who is 20 years old?

These questions often arise in legal debates. Jurors are told to use an objective reasonable person standard when making decisions.

How can the reasonable person test be used in business and the workplace?

The reasonable person test is a legal standard. It is a useful tool for making good business decisions as it reflects the standards of behaviour in a community.

Challenging and regrettable situations crop up in various aspects of life, and the workplace is no stranger to them. Injuries occur, conflicts arise, harassment may manifest, and unwelcome advances are sometimes made.

Opening a business comes with risks that can harm employees, contractors, visitors, and clients. These risks can also result in loss and distress. Business owners may sometimes question their decision to open their doors due to the significant risks involved.

Employers can prepare for and manage workplace risks by thinking about how a ‘reasonable person’ would act in risky situations. This means taking cautious steps to ensure safety. It involves assessing potential dangers and planning ahead. By considering the mindset of a ‘reasonable person’, employers can better protect their employees.

Recognising that employer ‘action’ encompasses both acts and omissions is crucial. The types of oversights that the ‘reasonable person’ would not neglect include:

  • ignoring harassment among colleagues
  • delaying repairs on essential equipment due to financial constraints
  • neglecting to tidy up hazards like loose cords in common areas

Taking proactive measures to prevent harm, such as providing training on sexual harassment and offering adequate notice of organisational changes, shows how the ‘reasonable person’ conducts their business.

Brooke is a Senior Lawyer with Prosper Law. Brooke is admitted to the Supreme Court of Queensland and the High Court of Australia

Case Examples

Vaughn v Menlove

The reasonable person test was first used in the civil lawsuit of Vaughn v Menlove. The case established a rule that stacking hay dangerously close to a neighbour’s property fell short of what a reasonable person would have done. The defendant in the case did this and it resulted in a fire risk. This ruling is now a precedent for similar cases in the future.

This was despite being repeatedly warned about the danger over five weeks. The person didn’t do anything and the hay caught fire and burned the landlord’s barns and stable. The fire then spread to the landlord’s two cottages.

The landlord sued the defendant and the court applied the reasonable person test. In applying the test, the Court found the defendant did not appreciate the risk as a reasonable person would have. The person was held accountable and had to pay damages because he failed to meet the reasonable person test.

The defendant’s lawyer admitted to his client’s “misfortune of not possessing the highest order of intelligence.” The lawyer argued that the defendant should only be found negligent if the jury decided that the defendant had not acted bona fide and to the best of his own judgment.

The Court disagreed and held such a standard would be too subjective, instead preferring to set an objective standard for deciding cases:

“The care taken by a prudent man has always been the rule laid down; and as to the supposed difficulty of applying it, a jury has always been able to say, whether, taking that rule as their guide, there has been negligence on the occasion in question.

Instead, therefore, of saying that the liability for negligence should be co-extensive with the judgment of each individual, which would be as variable as the length of the foot of each individual, we ought rather to adhere to the rule which requires in all cases a regard to caution such as a man of ordinary prudence would observe. That was, in substance, the criterion presented to the jury in this case and, therefore, the present rule must be discharged.

The court described the concept of the reasonable person. Akin to a passenger on the “Clapham omnibus,” it represents a general archetype rather than a specific individual. Clapham was a working-class district in London at the time. The standard underscored the objective nature of the standard by contextualising a horse-drawn bus.

The court clarified that the standard remains objective rather than subjective. That is, even if the defence presented witnesses who claimed to be “reasonable persons” and would have acted similarly.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I determine the standard of a reasonable person in Australia?

Factors such as age, profession, knowledge, experience, and physical or mental disabilities are taken into account when determining the standard of a reasonable person in Australia. Additionally, the context of the situation and societal expectations may also influence the assessment.

In Australia, negligence cases use the reasonable person standard. This standard helps determine if a defendant’s actions were not as careful as they should have been.

It applies to situations similar to theirs. This means considering how an average person would act in a similar situation. It also involves determining if the defendant’s actions resulted in harm to the plaintiff.

Yes, the standard of the reasonable person can vary depending on the circumstances in Australian law. Courts consider factors such as the industry or profession. They also consider the expected level of expertise and any relevant laws or standards.

Additionally, we may adjust the standard to accommodate the characteristics and capabilities of individuals, such as children or people with disabilities.

About the Author

Farrah Motley
Director of Prosper Law. Farrah founded Prosper online law firm in 2021. She wanted to create a better way of doing legal work and a better experience for customers of legal services.

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