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Duty of Care Part 1

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Reasonable Man Test:
An objective test which asks: "What would a reasonable person of ordinary prudence have done in the defendant's situation?"

Social Customs:
The common practices and habits of a community that may be used to determine reasonable behavior.

Industry Customs:
The common practices and habits of an industry that may be used to determine reasonable behavior.

Informed Consent:
A patient’s knowing choice about treatment made after a doctor discloses whatever information a reasonably prudent doctor would provide to the patient regarding the risks involved with the treatment.

As we said before, everybody owes a duty to society to behave like a reasonable person would behave under the same circumstances. This “reasonable man” test is an objective one and does not consider the defendant’s state of mind at the time he was committing his act of negligence

It is worth noting the difference between the subjective test we use for intentional torts and the objective test we use for negligence. All actions for intentional torts hinge upon the intent with which defendant acted. Therefore, we need to know what was going through defendant’s mind when he committed his act. In an action for negligence, the reasonable man test asks what the “reasonable person of ordinary prudence” would have done in the defendant’s situation. Because this is an objective test, we do not care what was going through the defendant’s mind when he committed his act or omission. All we care about is what a reasonable person in the defendant’s shoes would have done.

Although the reasonable man test is applied equally to all similar individuals, the standard of care varies from circumstance to circumstance. Consider the following examples.

T, a trucker, is transporting a truck full of water from Boston to New York. During the trip the water spills out onto the highway. In an action for negligence against T, the jury is trying to determine whether the water was packed onto the truck carefully enough.

T, a trucker, is transporting toxic waste from Boston to New York. During the trip, the toxic waste spills out onto the highway. In an action for negligence against T, the jury is trying to determine whether the toxic waste was packed onto the truck carefully enough.

In both cases the trucker is transporting a substance from Boston to New York. In both cases liability will hinge on whether those substances were packed onto the truck carefully enough. In both cases the “reasonable man” test will be applied and the jury will have to determine whether a reasonable person acting under the same circumstances would have packed the goods onto the truck the way the trucker had. Thus, the standard to determine liability is the same in each case. However, the level of care that is required of the trucker/reasonable man transporting water is going to be much lower than what we require from the trucker/reasonable man transporting toxic waste simply because water is not a dangerous substance whereas toxic waste is. Therefore, while the reasonable man test is applied in each case, the standard of care we require of defendant will change with the foreseeable risk of harm and the harm actually caused.

It is worth noting that certain behavior that is not acceptable in ordinary situations will be acceptable in emergency situations. In such cases, the reasonable man test will be used to determine what a reasonable person in a similar emergency situation would have done. See Rivera v. New York Transit Authority, 77 N.Y.2d 322 (1991).

Please remember that the reasonable man test is always dependent upon the circumstances that existed at the time the defendant acted. We take our reasonable man and put him in the defendant’s place so that he is theoretically acting at exactly the same time, and under the exact same conditions, that the defendant acted.

There is a question as to whether the fact that a defendant acted in accordance with, or against, social or industry customs can be used as evidence in a negligence case.

Essentially, custom is admissible as evidence of the standard of care owed by the defendant but it is never conclusive. In other words, the fact that defendant acted according to or against community or industry customs may provide evidence as to whether or not he acted in a reasonable or unreasonable manner but it will not prove or disprove negligence by itself. Texas & Pacific Railway v. Behymer, 189 U.S. 468 (1903). See also Willliams v. New York Rapid Transit, 272 N.Y. 366 (1936).

As far as industry custom goes, if the defendant can show that he acted within accepted common practice for the industry, it may help him because a court, knowing that defendant acted within common industry custom, might be hesitant to rule against defendant and force an entire industry to change the way it practices. See Levine v. Russell Blaine Co., 273 N.Y. 386 (1937). Conversely, showing that defendant acted against industry custom would be helpful to the plaintiff.

Another question is whether the fact that a defendant acted in compliance with, or in violation of, a state statute can be used as evidence of negligence. See Clinkscales v. Carver, 22 Cal.2d 72 (1943). Once again, this kind of evidence will be admissible but not conclusive. The standard used in such a case is still the reasonable man standard. Therefore, it is possible that the defendant can be found liable for negligence even if he acted in compliance with a statute. For example, certain statutes may set minimum guidelines for appropriate safety precautions or behavior and, although the defendant might have complied with those minimum requirements, a jury could decide that a reasonable person would have taken greater measures. For example: 

A state statute requires that all windows in residential buildings have protective bars on them and that the bars should be no greater than one foot apart from each other. The landlord complies with these guidelines and a child slips through the bars and falls out the window. In such a case the court would hear evidence that the landlord complied with the statute. However, a jury could still determine that a reasonable person would have put the bars no more than six inches apart. Thus the jury could determine that the reasonable man would have taken steps beyond what the statute required to insure safety. Thus, even though the landlord complies with the statute he could be found liable for negligence anyway.

The reasonable man test is flexible enough that it can apply to anyone.

Minors are held to a reasonable person standard as well. However, the age and intelligence of the child are considered as part of the circumstances under which the child acts. In other words, when we ask what a reasonable child would have done in similar circumstances, we are asking what a reasonable child of the same age, intelligence and experiences as the actual child would have done in a similar situation. See Peterson v. Taylor, 316 N.W.2d 869 (Iowa 1982).

The general rule is that children under the age of four (or seven, in some jurisdictions) cannot be held liable for negligence. For children between the ages of four (or seven) and fourteen there is a rebuttable presumption that they are incapable of negligence. This means that for children between the ages of four (or seven) and fourteen the courts will assume that a child cannot be held liable for acts of negligence. However, this is a rebuttable presumption so that enough evidence showing that the child acted negligently can result in a finding of liability. See Mastland, Inc. v. Evans Furniture, Inc., 498 N.W.2d 682 (Iowa 1993).

The exception to these rules is where children engage in adult activities. In such situations, children are held to the same standard as adults. Case law has determined that activities like driving cars and snow mobiles, operating tractors and owning property are adult activities for which the child will be held to the ordinary reasonable man standard that is usually reserved for adults.

People with disabilities are held to the reasonable man standard as well, although their particular disabilities are factored in as one of the circumstances. In such a case the test asks what the reasonable person with the same kind of disability would have done in a similar situation. People with disabilities are required to have knowledge of their disabilities and can be found negligent for engaging in behavior that a reasonable person with the same disabilities would have refrained from. See Hill v. Glenwood, 100 N.W. 522 (Iowa 1904). For example:

Dave has epilepsy. He gets into his car and drives down the street. During the trip, Dave suffers a seizure and crashes his car into a group of people standing on the sidewalk. If a jury determines that a reasonable person with Dave’s condition would have refrained from driving, Dave could be held liable for negligence. Again, this handicap is factored into the reasonable man standard.

For these purposes, voluntary intoxication does not count as a physical handicap. Thus, someone who gets intoxicated and acts in a manner that could be considered negligent does not have the benefit of using his intoxication as a circumstance for the reasonable man test.

Mental deficiencies are not factored into the circumstances for the reasonable man test. Thus, if someone with a mental deficiency commits an act that could be considered negligent, the reasonable man test will not incorporate the mental deficiency as a circumstance and only the ordinary reasonable man test will apply. The reasons for this are: (a) because mental deficiencies are too easy to fake and (b) it is very difficult to determine what mental deficiencies should lessen the standard of care and what mental deficiencies should not lessen the standard of care. Therefore, no mental deficiency lessens the standard of care.

While there are minimum standards that all people are held to, people who have acquired special skills or special talents are held to a standard that takes into account those special skills and talents. For example, if a defendant represents himself as a qualified surgeon, his special skills will be factored into the reasonable man test and he will be held to the standard of care that all qualified surgeons are held to.

However, people who do not have experience in dealing with a task inherent in everyday life do not necessarily have the benefit of a lesser standard of care based solely on their inexperience. For example:

A teenager with a learner’s permit who takes his father’s car and drives it on the highway will be held to the same standard as an experienced adult driver. The rationale is that the teenager who engaged in this activity should bear the risk or liability.

The general rule for tradesmen and professionals is that they are required to exercise the degree of care exercised by members of their trade or profession. See Heath v. Swift Wings, Inc., 252 S.E.2d 526.

Doctors represent a unique exception to this rule. There used to be a time when there was a marked difference in the training and skill of doctors which depended on where the doctor came from. For example, doctors that came from urban centers were usually better trained and had more experience than the typical country doctor. Therefore, doctors from small towns and rural areas were held to a standard of care that applied only to doctors in rural areas and small towns. Thus, if a doctor from a rural area was sued for negligence, the standard of care would be what a doctor from a small town would have done in that situation. Conversely, a doctor from an urban center would have been held to the standard of care that doctors from urban centers are held to. Although this used to be the case, it is less so today. A growing number of courts have imposed a nationwide standard of care on certified medical specialties. Although more and more courts are moving in the direction of holding all doctors to one standard of care, a plaintiff must establish both a particular standard of medical care that is required and show that the doctor departed from that standard in order to prevail in a case of negligence against a doctor. See Tallbull v. Whitney, 564 P.2d 162 (Mont. 1977). This is generally proven by expert testimony.

Typically, doctors have a duty to disclose relevant information about both the benefits and the risks involved in any course of treatment they recommend. See Canterbury v. Spence, 464 F.2d 772 (D.C. Cir. 1972). That is to say, a doctor must inform the patient as to both the upside and the downside of the treatment, including side effects, chances of death, chances of success, alternative courses of treatment and what would likely happen to the patient if he decided to forgo treatment altogether. There used to be a split in the law as to what exactly the doctor was required to disclose. Some courts held that the doctor was only required to disclose that which was customary to disclose. Other courts required disclosure of that which the doctor should have reasonably recognized as being material to the patient’s decisions. See Korman v. Mallin, 858 P.2d 1145 (Alaska 1993). Today, the law is moving toward requiring doctors to disclose everything that would be material to the patient’s decision.

There are three exceptions under which the doctor does not have a duty to disclose.

  1. There is no duty to disclose in an emergency situation. Thus, if a patient is unconscious or unable to comprehend what the doctor is saying and prompt medical attention is required, the doctor in such circumstances is under no duty to disclose.
  2. There is no duty to disclose if the patient is so upset or mentally unstable that the physician reasonably believes that disclosure would be detrimental to the patient’s well being. The burden of proof is on the doctor to prove this.
  3. An inexperienced physician has no duty to disclose to a patient that he has no experience in administering the course of treatment he is recommending.

Most courts hold that, in order for the plaintiff to make a case against the doctor for lack of informed consent, the patient must show that, had he been properly informed, neither he, nor a reasonable person in similar circumstances, would have undergone the treatment. Some courts, however, have eliminated the reasonable man test in the case of lack of informed consent against a doctor and only require the patient to show that he himself would not have undergone the treatment.

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