What is a “Reasonable Person”
The sad story of Adrian Peterson has left many in Minnesota saying “Uffda!”
Peterson was one of the NFL’s star players. He was the MVP in 2012, overcoming adversity after tearing his ACL in the last game of the previous season. He ran for 2097 yards, just nine short of the all-time season record. His amazing running style featured an apparent desire to run through a defensive back rather than elude him. Many, including Peterson, predicted that eventually he would break Emmitt Smith’s career rushing record and become the best running back in the history of football.
Now, because of parenting that some term “child abuse,” Peterson might never play professional football again and has been indicted for reckless and negligent injury to a child.
His press release paints the picture of a young man who thought he was doing the right thing by mimicking his parents. He seems to think he should be judged by the disciplinary behavior used in his community.
Many people erroneously think that’s how our legal system works. His unfortunate circumstance offers an opportunity to examine what is wrongfully assumed to be the act of a “reasonably prudent person” and, in contrast, the actual exposures to the insurance industry under a liability policy.
Peterson Is Probably Very Confused by What Has Happened
I was a huge fan of Peterson’s. It would be hard to live in Minnesota and not be. His work ethic is beyond question. The Vikings once had a star player, Randy Moss, who was known to say, “I play when I want to play.” It was refreshing to cheer for a player who ran hard “All Day,” which has been Peterson’s nickname since childhood.
I don’t condone for a minute what he did, but I can easily imagine the bewilderment for a man who obviously has a strong sense of responsibility. He seemingly was trying to excel at parenting discipline, just like he has excelled at football.
The outspoken, ex-NBA star Charles Barkley stated, “Whipping – we do that all the time. Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances.” Barkley excused Peterson’s actions by incorrectly applying the reasonable person standard, which is part of determining whether or not a person is negligent.
What is a “Reasonable Person”
I’m not an attorney, and I’m not about to apply a negligence standard to a criminal case, but there are parallels that make Peterson’s situation worth considering.
In order to be found negligent the defendant in a civil suit must:
1.) Have a duty to the plaintiff (If a civil case is pursued the plaintiff will be Peterson’s son);
2.) Have breached that duty according to a standard of conduct;
3.) Committed negligent conduct that was the cause of the harm to the plaintiff; and,
4.) The plaintiff had to have been harmed or damaged.
It is the “standard of conduct” breach that we need to discuss.
If Peterson’s problems grow beyond criminal and become a civil suit for damages, he might call upon people like Barkley to testify as to the community “standard of conduct.”
He might be surprised to find out that a reasonably prudent person of the law is not a composite of how the community would act under similar circumstances.
Rather, the courts hold that the standard to be the way the typical community member “should” behave in situations that pose a threat of harm to the public. This standard is further defined by legal exception, in that children are specifically held to a standard of how a child of their age and intelligence would act.
The courts have become quite specific as to how an adult person “should” behave.
The courts are saying, “You can and should do better” and in this instance they might be right. Consider that in Peterson’s Minnesota Viking “community” there have been a league-leading forty-four arrests of teammates since January of 2000. Such a “community” might readily provide a low bar for parental discipline if they were allowed to set the legal standard.
Considerations of a Reasonable Person
Peterson has issued a statement that said, in part, “But deep in my heart I have always believed I could have been one of those kids that was lost in the streets without the discipline instilled in me by my parents and other relatives. I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man. I love my son and I will continue to become a better parent and learn from any mistakes I ever make. . . not a perfect parent, but I am, without a doubt, not a child abuser.”
The courts demand that a reasonable person consider ALL of the following before acting:
- The predictable risk of harm the actions create versus the worth;
- The degree of risk produced;
- The probability that the action will cause harm;
- And any options of reduced risk and the costs.
Because the courts hold us to a high standard of action, the legal community sometimes will refer to the “reasonable person” as “an excellent, but odious person.”
In Peterson’s case he may have missed the standard for behavior on many levels. It is quite possible the predictable harm of using a switch on a four-year old far exceeds the possible worth of a life lesson taught. The running back’s aggression admired by so many might have caused him to err in his parenting. It is obvious that the probable harm of hitting a small boy with a switch was almost certain. It also seems extremely possible that many other options were available that might have reduced the risk without involving undue cost.
It would appear that Peterson, in a civil suit over this incident and possibly others that have surfaced, might be held to a standard that would demand that he be something closer to a “perfect parent.”
Further, according to the courts, it is not allowable in court for Peterson to claim a lack of personal knowledge that is commonly understood within the community. He can assert that his parents used similar discipline on him, which led him to believe that his method of discipline was acceptable. He probably can’t allege that he didn’t know such discipline could leave mental scars. The court might hold that trauma resulting in long-term mental anguish is common knowledge within the community.
Parenting requires instantaneous decisions. Peterson might have fallen into disciplinary pattern his parents used on him. He is a man lauded for his instantaneous decision-making on the gridiron. He has been praised far beyond what most of us can imagine for his physical response to adversity. When challenged by defensive backs, who are all world-class athletes, he has relied on instinct and became wildly successful.
He also may have used his instincts in that parenting moment when the law required him to be reflective and analytical.
Although Peterson points toward harsh discipline as having shaped him into the success he has become, Peterson is a stellar football player from Texas who grew up in an environment that told generally him that rules don’t always apply to him. Even as a Vikings player, he has not faced many of the same struggles as his teammates. He was essentially exempt from playing in the pre-season games because his coaches didn’t think he had anything to prove. In fact, he hasn’t played a pre-season game for the last three years.
I believe Peterson thought he was acting in the best interest of his child’s development. The lesson for us to take away from this discussion is not that Peterson is a bad person. John Wooden said, “Sports do not build character, they reveal it.” Peterson’s actions on the football field have shown us outstanding character.
The lesson we should learn is that when forced to defend your actions (or your insured’s actions) in court the standard of a reasonable person might seem unreasonable to you, but has served us well in the pursuit of justice.