The Reasonable Person Standard in Volunteer Management

By Minnesota Office of Citizenship and Volunteer Services
From Planning It Safe, Minnesota Office of Citizenship and Volunteer Services., 1998

The "reasonable person" standard is an objective standard; that is, it may be different than what an individual volunteer or organization considers reasonable. For instance, hospital volunteers without medical training may judge it reasonable to not personally intervene if they see a patient choking. Yet it is reasonable for these volunteers to go for emergency help anyway. The volunteers could be held liable for not seeking assistance.

Besides being an objective standard, the "reasonable person" standard is an adult standard. In other words, it is based on what a reasonable adult would do in the given situation. However, there are three exceptions to this standard. They apply to children, professionals, and standards set by statute. - Children will generally be held to a lesser standard of care than adults. The standard for children is measured by what a child of the same age, experience, and intelligence would do in the same circumstances.

However, this lower standard of care does not apply when children participate in adult activities, such as driving a car or boat. This poses specific concerns for the organization that involves children as volunteers. Among them are the type of training offered, the age and prior experience of the child, and the nature of the volunteer task.

Case law in Minnesota says that this standard also applies to people with mental disabilities.In some circumstances, then, a child might not be held liable for injury. Even so, the organization could be held liable if, for instance, the volunteer task was beyond the child's capability or experience. Assigning a task that is clearly beyond a person's capability is called negligent entrustment.

How do you determine what activities are appropriate for children? Be sure to review OSHA regulations and laws for child labor. Volunteers who are professionals, such as doctors, nurses, lawyers, or accountants, are held to the standard of care for that particular profession. The profession itself usually sets that standard. Generally, this means acting with the same degree of care and skill that other members of the profession would exercise in similar circumstances. This standard applies whether the professional is paid or unpaid.

Standards of care can be set by statute-that is, defined by law. However, violating the statute won't automatically impose liability on a volunteer or organization. Injured persons still need to show that they are protected under the statute, and that the statute intends to prevent the kind of harm they experienced. The kind of negligence involved here is known as "negligence per se". This means that the law defines the duty of care and how that duty is breached.

Related Topics:
Permission is granted to download and reprint this material. Reprints must include all citations and the statement: "Found in the Energize online library at"