I grew up watching The People’s Court as a kid. (This was the old version with Judge Wapner, Officer Rusty Burrell, and Doug Llewelyn). I watched it enough that there are three phrases from the show that I can still quote verbatim:
- “What you are witnessing is real. The participants are NOT actors. They are actual litigants with a case pending in California Municipal Court. Both parties have agreed to dismiss their court cases, and have their disputes settled here, in our forum, the People’s Court!”
- “What a reasonably prudent person would or would not do in the same or similar circumstances.”
- “I’m Doug Llewelyn, and if somebody [whatever the defendant had done in that day’s case], certainly don’t take the law into your own hands, you take ’em to court!”
Believe it or not, once I got to law school, I heard some of this again. Not the part about taking ’em to court, and not the part about the participants not being actors, but the part about “what a reasonably prudent person would or would not do in the same or similar circumstances.” Now, like all things law-related, it’s more complicated than that. But as a rule of thumb, if you want to know whether someone was negligent, think about what a reasonable person would have done. If the speed limit is 55 MPH, but the roads are iced over, then driving 55 MPH is probably not something a reasonable person would do.
Now, there are some cases where you have to prove more (or less) than negligence. Two types of cases that come to mind are dog bite cases and slip-and-fall cases, but of course there are other examples. But to answer the straightforward question of whether a person has been negligent, simply ask yourself what a reasonable person would have done.